The Coronavirus and Capitalism’s Ecological Crisis
Sandile Fuku | Amandla Online | 17 April 2020
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus (SARS-CoV) is a novel virus that caused the first major pandemic of the new millennium. The rapid economic growth in southern China has led to an increasing demand for animal proteins including those from exotic wild animals. The large number of wild animals in overcrowded cages and the lack of biosecurity measures in wet markets allowed the host-switching of this novel virus from animals to humans.
As in two preceding instances of emergence of coronavirus disease in the past 18 years — SARS (2002 and 2003) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) (2012 to the present), the SARS-COV-2 which causes the disease called Covid-19, has posed critical challenges for the public health, research, economic stability of the current system. Other important human viruses (e.g., measles and smallpox) may have originated in wildlife or domesticated animals in prehistoric times. It is therefore important that we understand how viruses enter and spread in new hosts, including the demographic factors, host and cellular properties, and the controls of virus transmission.
The Science Behind the Disease:
Three stages of viral disease emergence leading to successful host switching can be identified:
- initial single infection of a new host with no onward transmission (spillovers into “dead-end” hosts),
- spillovers that go on to cause local chains of transmission in the new host population before epidemic fade-out (outbreaks), and
- epidemic or sustained endemic host-to-host disease transmission in the new host population.
Multiple factors that affect successful disease emergence influence each of these stages, including the type and intensity of contacts between the reservoir (donor) host or its viruses and the new (recipient) host, host barriers to infection at the level of the organism and cell, viral factors that allow efficient infections in the new host, and determinants of efficient virus spread within the new host population. In case of the virus causing covid-19, the donor host are bats, while recipient host are humans.
Contact between donor and recipient hosts is a precondition for virus transfer and is thus affected by the geographical, ecological, and behavioral separation of the donor and recipient hosts. Factors that affect the geographical distribution of host species (e.g., wildlife trade and the introduction of domestic species) or that decrease their behavioral separation (e.g., bush meat hunting) tend to promote viral emergence. Human-induced changes may promote viral host switching from animals to humans, including changes in social and demographic factors (e.g., travel), in human behavior (e.g., farming practices), or in the environment (e.g., deforestation and agricultural expansion)
The Relationship between SARS-COV-2 and the Ecological Crisis
The global rate of tropical deforestation continues at staggering levels, with nearly 2–3% of forests lost globally each year. Parallel with this habitat destruction is an exponential growth in human–wildlife interaction and conflict. This has resulted in exposure to new pathogens for humans, livestock, and wildlife. Deforestation diminishes the overall habitat available for wildlife species. Interesting to note, is how the Covid-19 disease causing virus follows increased contact between people and animal disease reservoirs, as the wild meat industry expanded recently in China.
Similarly, the emergence of Nipah virus in Malaysia was facilitated by intensive pig farming, which amplified epizootic virus transmission and therefore increased human exposure. Fruit bats are the reservoirs of Nipah virus, and planting of fruit orchards around piggeries attracted these bats, allowing spillovers of viruses to pigs and a large-scale outbreak. In the two examples of emerging diseases caused by viruses, the ecosystems in which such “wild” viruses were in part controlled by the complexities of the tropical forest are being drastically streamlined by capital-led deforestation and, at the other end of periurban development, by deficiencies in public health and environmental sanitation .
The geographical distribution of the COVID-19 virus increased as various governments, including South Africa prioritised economic markets over public heath, by delaying travel bans even though reports of the outbreak were public knowledge by December 2019. This was done despite knowledge on the significant implications of human movement in public health. Not only are travelers (tourists, businesspeople, and other workers) at risk of contracting communicable diseases when visiting places of outbreaks, they become vectors that direct the geographical distribution of these viruses. The responses to this epidemic have also been constrained by existing inequality that derives from the polarising effect of global capitalism.
In South Africa, the government imposed a lockdown as an expression of the declared state of disaster. This happens in a country where majority of the population finds itself trapped in environments such as Khayelitsha, Diepsloot, Alexandra townships. In these densely populated areas, self-isolation is nearly impossible.
A study by Fauci and co, estimated basic reproduction number (R0) of 2.2 for the SARS-COV-2. This means that, on average, each infected person spreads the infection to an additional two persons. The study noted, until this number falls below 1.0, it is likely that the outbreak will continue to spread. Currently, the state is unable to carry out massive testing to gather enough information, so as to work out a reliable reproduction number. The screening process in Gauteng employs so-called community health-care workers, whose training took less than 2 weeks, this is irresponsible from a government that has been claiming to have a bloated public service.
Mitigation strategies such as (state isolation) of patients that cannot effectively do self-isolation are not meaningfully explored, because the public health infrastructure is highly limited for this kind of intervention. Residents who are subject to overcrowding and who lack access to safe drinking water or proper sanitation can be more susceptible to infection by the virus. The existing apartheid spatial planning can only worsen the disease burden in poor communities.
It is clear that the South African government is not planning to provide social support for these communities. This lack of social support for the poor is demonstrated by the Gauteng government when it prints a poster that reads:
“If you know of any vulnerable persons in Gauteng who are in need of assistance during the 21-day lockdown please contact the Gauteng government call center on 0800 428 8364 or email firstname.lastname@example.org…”
This is shocking for a provincial government, where local governments have indigent policies and should be having databases of poor households. Clearly, this is a government whose planning is not evidence based.
New rapidly spreading viruses can become impossible to control once they cross the threshold of a certain number of infections and/or rate of transmission, for example after spreading in humans into urban populations, where quarantine and/or treatment becomes impractical. Therefore, coordinated strategic planning is critical for the rapid responses, and meaningful social support for the poor majority. It has come as no surprise that resident picketed next to Cape Town Civic Centre ahead of the nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the SARS-COV-2 virus. They demanded that water be provided to Khayelitsha’s informal settlements, as government imposed a lockdown where water and sanitation remain a challenge, yet people are advised to regularly wash hands. A lockdown when poor unemployed people remain without food availability, creates conflict between law enforcement officers and individuals that seeks to secure money for the next meal. Therefore, adequate food supply (delivery of food parcels every 14 days) to become a requirement in poor communities. In addition to the loans that are made available as part of the relief for tax compliant small businesses, government should provide a Basic Income Grant to all unemployed persons. Otherwise, the state would have failed to mobilse support for the poor majority whose situation has worsened due to the lockdown. The discrepancy between the urgency in relieving the business community, as compared to lack of detail in meeting the needs of the poor majority perpetuates the polarisation that derives from the tendency of Capitalism to entrench both economic and social inequality.
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