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COVID-19: The Neo-Liberal Virus

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In Hazards Geography, it is a settled theory, that there is no such thing as accidental interruptions of normal life. Hazards and disasters, arise from within the social innards of everyday life. It is a foundational insight, comparable in its rigour to Newtonian laws of motion, that who suffers from hazards and where, is deeply embedded in the structure of human environment relations. The COVID-19 pandemic and the pattern of its spread across global, national and local scales is no exception to that law of social causation. A recent report by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) titled, Preventing the Next Pandemic, helpfully reminds us of the social causation of pandemics like COVID-19. The report sadly, also provides a cautionary tale on how the best analysis pointing towards what to do, can be subverted by the technocratic mind. But first to the how we created COVID-19.

The novel corona virus is part of a family of viruses, well known to the human and non-human immune systems. Common cold, for example, is a result of the infection by other varieties of corona viruses. The specific strand of corona virus called COVID-19 (Corona virus disease discovered in 2019—and no, it is not the 19th virus with 18 others lurking somewhere else) most likely originated in bats, and jumped to humans through an intermediate carrier animal, at a wet market in Wuhan China. Wet markets are where live animals are kept. It is not quite clear which animal was the intermediate host. The process of viruses, which may be completely harmless in their original  hosts, mutating and jumping to humans is called zoonosis. Zoonosis is a common enough phenomena in nature. About 60% of human infections are thought to have animal origin, including, for example, small pox (cows), flu (pigs), plague (rats) etc. However, 75% of new and emerging infections in humans are of animal origin, according to the UNEP report. The rate and intensity of zoonosis, i.e., animal viruses and bacteria mutating to infect humans, typically coincide with transformative changes in human societies. The first major episode of widespread zoonosis was during the agricultural revolution, in the early Neolithic (8-10,000 years BP) period when migratory humans first settled and started domesticating animals. Since then zoonosis has led to emergence of new diseases as humans have penetrated new ecosystems, or started adding different animals to their diets.

Coming around to the present time, it appears that we are witnessing an accelerated rate of zoonosis, comparable or even greater than the last bout of it during the early Neolithic. What is going on? The answer laid out in the UNEP report is unequivocal:

The frequency of pathogenic microorganisms jumping from other animals to people is increasing due to unsustainable human activities. Pandemics such as the COVID-19 outbreak are a predictable and predicted outcome of how people source and grow food, trade and consume animals, and alter environments (p. 7).

Today we live in a neo-liberal world order. In this world order, unbridled capitalism and faith in the free markets’ ability to deliver prosperity is gospel. Today the financial markets are more powerful than the political leadership of the world. Financial markets engaging in unscrupulous speculation and financial sleights of hand can literally create money out of thin air. Don’t believe me, consider this: The global gross domestic product is US $ 142 trillion in 2020. That means everything from haircuts to automobile manufacturing to agriculture to retail, adds up to US $ 142 trillion. Yet the total wealth in the world adds up to US $ 361 trillion, real estate is worth US $ 280 trillion, global debt is worth US $ 253 trillion, and we will not even mention the notional US $ 1 quadrillion (1,000 trillion) of derivative value. If the fruits of all of our human labour generate value of US $ 142 trillion, where are the additional $ 221 trillion coming from? Or how could there be debt which is almost twice the value of what is there on this planet? You guessed it—we made it up. The financial markets ask us to believe that the real estate is worth that much, and so it is. They say there is a quadrillion dollars of derivatives, and notionally there are. What does this have to do with zoonosis and COVID-19? As it turns out, everything.

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The extra capital created out of the imagination of the financial industry and not from the labour of the working people or anything that they have created, removed the capital barrier to expansion. China is at the epicentre of turning the financial capital into things one could use and see—clothes, iphones, saucepans, roads etc. China poured more concrete in the first 20 years of the 21st century than the US poured in all of 20th century. China is also home to some of the richest ecosystems in the world. As China’s expanding urban, and industrial agriculture systems, much like the urban and agricultural systems of India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Brazil and Nigeria, to name a few, push further into the diverse ecosystems, they stress out animals, destroy habitats, reduce bio-diversity and create ideal conditions for zoonosis. No wonder China has been a source of as many zoonotic outbreaks as it has been over the past two decades.

Under neo-liberalism human societies have rescinded the ancient covenant between animals and humans where humans take care of them, give them affection, facilitate their breeding, and even honour them and hold them sacred in many traditions, in return for their labour and food. Instead animals are no longer sentient beings that we share our lives with, but rather things to be mass produced, like shoes and shirts. Industrial food processing plants are hubs of zoonotic disease transmission, including COVID-19, as are modern meat retailers, much more so than the traditional small butchers in the global South (p. 17). Almost every single example of zoonosis in the 20th and 21st century, is from land use change and industrial animal farming, e.g., Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) emerged from industrial farming of camels in Saudi Arabia.

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Some instance of zoonosis like Ebola or HIV remained localised in scattered population. But with globalization, local outbreaks take little time to become global through the international travel networks. And cheap international travel as well as movement of goods and services is a hall mark of neo-liberalism.

The UNEP report does an outstanding job of listing all the ways in which the present COVID-19 pandemic is an outcome of how we have produced ourselves as neo-liberal subjects. It also leaves little doubt on how our arrogance in the face of the non-human world has exposed us to the only way, the supposedly inert and helpless animals can (metaphorically) fight back—through pathogens. But as expected from a UN report, it stops short of calling for rethinking of the fundamentals of what it means to be human. It doesn’t invite us to reconsider how we have produced ourselves or calls for paradigmatic change. Instead it gets into the usual menu of more research, technology, vigilance, policy frameworks and in essence being nicer and wiser.

On what to do, is where hazards geographers step in, to pick up the slack. It is simply not enough to say that since addressing the systemic causes of pandemics is too hard to address so we shouldn’t. Instead we should carry on, just even out the rough edges. The UNEP’s call for interdisciplinarity between ecologists, public health practitioners and veterinary sciences is welcome. Equally its silence on the destructive consumption and expansionary ethos of neo-liberal capitalism is reprehensible. Hazards geographers have a unique opportunity to pick up from where the UNEP report stops to highlight the structural changes that are necessary to manage the present pandemic and to prevent future ones. That will involve human societies producing themselves differently from the consumerist mode that neo-liberalism has imposed. In the end, we need a renegotiation of the covenant under which we humans live with each other and the non-human world. That is the peril and the promise of building a safer more just world.

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Naya Daur