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Lost Lessons from COVID-19: Capitalism and the Threat of a New Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the weaknesses of global health systems under capitalism, showing how profit-driven intensive farming and environmental degradation heighten the risk of future pandemics, such as the persistent threat of H5N1 avian flu.

“It is forbidden to spit on cats in plague-time.”

― Albert Camus, The Plague

Intensive Farming and Disease Spread

Intensive farming and deforestation, driven by profit motives, disrupt ecosystems and increase human-wildlife interactions, facilitating the spillover of viruses from animals to humans. This dynamic underscores the inherent dangers of our current socio-economic model and reveals a critical need for systemic change. The COVID-19 pandemic should have served as a wake-up call, demonstrating the necessity of rethinking our relationship with nature and prioritising public health over profit.

The pursuit of profit under capitalism exacerbates pandemic risks. The commodification of nature and the relentless drive for economic growth lead to environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, heightening the likelihood of zoonotic diseases. Intensive farming practices, aimed at maximising production and profit, create ideal conditions for the spread of diseases among animals, which can then jump to humans. This conflict between capitalist exploitation of natural resources and public health highlights the need for a more sustainable and health-conscious approach to food production.

“The COVID-19 pandemic should have served as a wake-up call, demonstrating the necessity of rethinking our relationship with nature and prioritising public health over profit.”

High-density animal populations act as breeding grounds for pathogens. From January 2022 through June 2024, the USDA detected H5N1 in over 9,300 wild birds and more than 1,140 commercial and backyard flocks, affecting over 96.5 million birds in 48 states (CDC, USA). Additionally, the virus has spread to mammals, including dairy cows, minks, and polar bears, suggesting it can cross species barriers more easily than previously thought (Houston Methodist Leading Medicine). The concentration of animals in confined spaces facilitates the rapid transmission and mutation of viruses, creating a perilous situation that could lead to a new pandemic.

Ian Angus highlights how intensive farming practices contribute to pandemics. His series “Capitalism’s New Age of Plagues” explores how these industrial practices create ‘pandemic machines’ by crowding animals into confined spaces and using antibiotics that foster resistant strains of bacteria and viruses. The urgency to meet market demands often leads to compromised animal welfare and hygiene standards, creating hotbeds for disease.

Climate Change

Climate change, driven by capitalist exploitation of natural resources, further intensifies these risks. Changes in climate patterns affect migratory routes and habitats, facilitating the spread and evolution of viruses like H5N1. As habitats are destroyed and temperatures rise, animals are forced into closer contact with humans, providing more opportunities for viruses to jump species. This intersection of climate change and zoonotic disease emergence underscores the need for systemic change in our environmental policies and agricultural practices. Addressing these root causes is essential to mitigating the risk of future pandemics.

Angus explores China’s livestock revolution in part 6 as an example of how rapid industrialisation and climate change interact to increase pandemic risks. This ‘revolution’ has led to large-scale deforestation and habitat destruction, driving wildlife closer to human populations and increasing the chances of zoonotic spillover. The combination of intensive farming and climate change creates a perfect storm for the emergence of new pathogens, with animals and humans coming into closer contact more frequently.

“The combination of intensive farming and climate change creates a perfect storm for the emergence of new pathogens, with animals and humans coming into closer contact more frequently.”

Surveillance

The fragmented and underfunded public health infrastructure, a byproduct of neoliberal policies prioritising market solutions over public goods, impedes effective disease surveillance and response. The CDC’s efforts to monitor H5N1 include targeted testing of exposed individuals and enhanced surveillance in areas with known outbreaks. However, despite these efforts, the risk remains significant due to limited resources compared to the profits driven by capitalist industries. This disjointed system reflects the broader capitalist tendency to prioritise short-term profits over long-term societal well-being. An integrated and adequately funded public health system is essential for effective disease prevention and response.

Although human cases of H5N1 are currently rare, the potential for the virus to mutate and become more transmissible to humans remains a significant concern. Between January 2022 and June 2024, there have been 29 sporadic human cases globally, with varying degrees of severity, including several fatalities (CDC, USA; UK Health Security Agency). The CDC and the UK Health Security Agency continue to monitor the situation closely, particularly among individuals who work with infected animals. The limited number of human cases should not lead to complacency; the history of pandemics shows that viruses can rapidly evolve and spread. The need for ongoing surveillance, research, and preparedness cannot be overstated.

While we seem to have dodged a bullet for the moment, an article from Climate and Capitalism emphasises that for wildlife, the next pandemic is already here. It points out that increased surveillance and monitoring of wildlife populations are crucial, as many potential pandemic viruses are circulating among animal populations long before they make the jump to humans.

Towards a Solution

Addressing these issues requires a fundamental shift in our approach to health and the environment. We must advocate for:

  • Collective Ownership and Regulation: Nationalising key industries, particularly those related to food production and healthcare, to ensure they operate in the public interest rather than for profit. This would allow for more stringent regulations and better resource allocation to prevent the spread of diseases.
  • Ecological Sustainability: Implementing sustainable agricultural practices and protecting natural habitats to reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases. This involves a shift away from intensive farming towards more environmentally friendly practices that prioritise animal welfare and ecological balance.
  • Strengthened Public Health Systems: Investing in robust, coordinated public health systems capable of comprehensive disease surveillance and rapid response. This includes increasing funding for research on emerging pathogens and ensuring that healthcare infrastructure is prepared to handle potential outbreaks.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of addressing the root causes of pandemic risk. Rather than returning to business as usual, we must recognise how capitalist practices contribute to these risks and take collective action to move away from capitalism. Challenging the profit motive at the heart of capitalism is essential to preventing future pandemics and protecting global health. We must not ignore the lessons from COVID-19; they should inspire systemic change towards a society that prioritises health and sustainability over profit. Integrating public health with environmental and economic policies is crucial for safeguarding against future pandemics. By adopting a holistic approach that acknowledges the interconnectedness of these issues, we can build a more resilient and healthier global community.

“Integrating public health with environmental and economic policies is crucial for safeguarding against future pandemics. By adopting a holistic approach that acknowledges the interconnectedness of these issues, we can build a more resilient and healthier global community.”

Ecosocialist Perspectives

The Ecosocialist Revolution Manifesto from Anti*Capitalist Resistance offers valuable insights into the systemic issues underpinning these crises. The manifesto emphasises the need for a sustainable relationship with the environment, arguing that the capitalist drive for profit inherently conflicts with ecological stability. It proposes a society where economic activities are democratically controlled and geared towards fulfilling human needs rather than generating profit. This perspective aligns with the call for nationalising key industries and prioritising public health and ecological sustainability. The manifesto highlights the interconnectedness of social, economic, and environmental justice, advocating for a comprehensive approach to addressing the root causes of pandemics and environmental degradation.

Ecosocialist Revolution: A Manifesto graphic.

The series “Capitalism’s New Age of Plagues” by Ian Angus (originally published on the Climate & Capitalism website and republished by Anti*Capitalist Resistance) further explores these issues, highlighting how the drive for profit leads to practices that increase pandemic risks. The series makes a compelling case for rethinking our economic and environmental policies to prevent future pandemics.


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