Silvia Ribeiro on the causes of the pandemic
The following interview originally appeared in Spanish in the Argentinian newspaper, Página 12. You can also listen to a podcast interview with Silvia on the same topic from Daraja Press.
by Claudia Korol
Silvia Ribeiro, a researcher born in Uruguay who has lived in Mexico for more than two decades, is the director for Latin America of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), an organization with observer status before the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Food sovereignty and the impact of biotechnological developments on health and the environment are some of the topics on which she investigates and that led her to question, from the start of the pandemic, the absence, not only of the description of the causes but also of the proposals to modify them. In this interview she refers to this nodal point, to the capitalist production system and to what we can envision, from our present obligatory isolation, as the future.
Although we have been talking about this virus for months, it is worth asking: What is Covid -19?
It is a strain - the one that gives rise to the current declaration of a pandemic - of the coronavirus family, which causes generally mild respiratory diseases, but which can be very serious for a percentage of those affected. It is part of a wide family of viruses, which like all others, can mutate, sometimes quickly. It is the same type of virus that gave rise to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Asia, and to acute respiratory syndrome in the Middle East (MERS).
Where does it come from?
Although there is a broad, scientific consensus which identifies the origin of COVID-19 in animals, and it has been attributed to bats, it is not clear where it comes from. Virus mutation occurs all the time, and there are many places where it could have originated. With today's global intercommunications and travel, it could have been moved from one location to another very quickly. What is known is that it began with a significant infection in a city in China, and probably mutated from a virus present in bats. This is not necessarily the place of origin, but the place where the Corona virus first manifested itself for us.
Rob Wallace, is an evolutionary biologist who has studied a century of pandemics for 25 years, and who is also a geographer whose specialization is to follow the path of pandemics and viruses. He says that infectious viruses in recent decades are closely related to industrial farming practices, specially large confined animal feeding operations or factory farms. We at ETC group and GRAIN, have already seen the emergence of avian influenza in Asia, and of swine flu (which they later named H1N1 to give it a more aseptic name), and also SARS, which is related to avian influenza.
These are viruses that arise in a situation where there is a kind of mechanism for the replication and mutation of viruses that is found in the industrial breeding of animals. It happens because so many animals are held together, in overcrowded conditions. This is repeated with both chickens and pigs, in confined spaces where they cannot move, and therefore tend to create many diseases. There are different strains of viruses, of bacteria, that move between many individuals contained in a small space. The animals are then subjected to regular applications of industrial chemicals, which are meant to eliminate another series of pathogens that are hosted inside the farm itself. There are also pesticide residues in the feed - usually it is transgenic corn and soy that is fed to them. Everything in the industrial livestock cycle is closely related to the business of selling transgenic fodder. They also regularly give them antibiotics and occasionally even antivirals, which is creating strains with increasingly stronger resistance. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called upon the animal husbandry industries, especially chicken, pigs, but also fish farming and turkeys, to stop applying antibiotics in animals that are not sick, because between 70 and 80% of the antibiotics in the world are used in industrial animal husbandry, mostly not aimed to treat disease, but to make them grow bigger, faster. Since these are animals that have a depressed immune system, they are exposed to disease all the time, and so they also give them antivirals. These overcrowded industrial breeding centers, from feedlots to farmed pigs, chickens, and turkeys, create a pathological situation for breeding resistant viruses and bacteria. They also come into contact with human beings who take them into the cities.
But does it come from bats or not?
There are people who wonder: “if it is being said that the virus was found in a market and that it comes from bats, how does it get to the animals that are being raised in captivity?”
What happens is that the bats, the civets, and others that are supposed to have given rise to various viruses - even one of the theories is that the AIDS virus comes from a mutation of a virus that was present in apes - they expand their range of territory due to the destruction of the natural habitats of these species, which forces them to move to other places. Wild animals may have a reservoir of viruses, which within their own species are controlled, and may exist but are not making the animals sick, but they suddenly move into an environment where they become a virus-making machine, because they now encounter very different conditions, with many other strains and viruses. They reach these places because they had been displaced from their natural habitats. This has to do above all with deforestation, which paradoxically is also due to the expansion of the agricultural frontier. FAO recognizes that 70% of deforestation has to do with the expansion of the agricultural frontier. FAO says that in countries like Brazil, where we have just seen everything that has happened with the fires, due to deforestation for livestock, the cause of deforestation is the expansion of the agricultural industry by more than 80%.
So there are several factors that come together to create the problem. Animals that are forced out of their natural habitats, be they bats or other types of animals, including many types of mosquitoes that are created and have become resistant due to the heavy use of pesticides. The entire system of toxic and chemical industrial agriculture also leads to the spread of other viruses that cause disease. There are a number of disease vectors reaching overcrowding systems in cities, especially in marginal areas, of people who have also been displaced and do not have adequate housing and hygiene conditions. A vicious circle of circulation of viruses is created.
What do you think about the ways in which the pandemic is being faced in the world?
Nothing that is happening right now is preventing the next pandemic. What is being discussed is how to face this particular pandemic, until hopefully at some point the virus itself reaches an apex, because there is acquired resistance in a significant amount of the population. So this particular virus can go away, like SARS and MERS went away. It may no longer have the current affect, but other viruses will appear, or the same COVID-19 will be transformed into the COVID-20 or COVID-21, by a new mutation, because all the base conditions remain the same. It is a perverse mechanism. The entire agro-industrial food system would have to be put into discussion, from the form of cultivation to the form of processing. Since this complete vicious circle is not being considered, the conditions that will produce another pandemic are set.
Is it possible to identify those responsible for this pandemic?
The pandemic is an outcome of the industrial operational mechanisms typical of the global capitalist system, which creates enormous problems ranging from climate change to the contamination of waters, of the seas, and the enormous health crisis that exists in countries due to poor diet, but also due to the exposure to toxins, which causes recurring health crisis in humans. Of course the capitalist system is not going to critically review this overall system, because to do so would lead to decisions that will affect the interests of the transnational companies that are the ones that accumulating profits, manufacturing concentrations of production both from the industrial breeding of animals, and the agrobusiness of monoculture, including the forestry companies and commercial deforestation. In each of the steps of the chain of the industrial agri-food system, we find just a handful of companies. We are talking about three, four, five, companies which dominate most of the sector in each step. Take transgenics seeds, for example. Here Bayer-Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF and Corteva control the market. The same goes for those that produce fodder for animals, for example Cargill, Bunge, ADM. These corporations also have interests in industrial livestock breeding because they are their main customer. Many times they are co-owners of these virus factories.
Having exposed the causes of the pandemic, these factors then have to be changed. But changing them would undermine the very foundations of the capitalist system. It is necessary to question production systems, especially the agri-food system immediately. But this also related to many other things. For example: who is most affected by the pandemic right now? It is the most vulnerable people: those who are homeless, those who do not have access to clean water. They are the same ones who have also been displaced by the system, and lack access to health systems.
How is the response from the health systems?
In these decades of neoliberalism and privatization, the need for primary health care systems has not been met, which is fundamental. But there are also no health systems to care for all the people who are getting sick in many countries right now. The countries where there have been fewer deaths in relation to the population are countries that had health systems relatively capable of attending to their population. Those who have dismantled them have been worse off in the face of the pandemic. The system is unfair not only from production side, it is also unfair from the consumption side, because not everyone has the level of access. The pandemic impacts the most vulnerable constituencies in unjust disproportion to their numbers. For some it will be due to age, but for many others it is due to diseases caused by the industrial agri-food system itself, such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, and all cancers of the digestive system. All of these public health issues are related to the same food system that produces the viruses. In the midst of all this, now come the bailout plans of the governments, and in most countries of the world, as much as they say that they will first attend to the marginalized, although there may be that intention – in others there is not even such pretense such as in the United States – in reality what they are trying to save is the companies, because they say they are the engines of the economy. The same scheme that help corporations is repeated. It means saving the companies that created the problem.
And what is the place of the pharmaceutical industries in the face of the pandemic?
Even in the face of the pandemic, the fundamental causes are not being discussed, but instead new businesses opportunities are being sought, for example, with the COVID-19 vaccine. The global pharma industry is racing to see who will deliver the first discovery to be able to patent it. Pharmaceutical companies are looking for cures, but also for business. It is also a big business boom for all computer companies, with virtual communications. Just before the pandemic, the famous GAFAM companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft), were already the one that had largest market value, because of the value of their shares. And it is these companies that are now making enormous profits, because there has been a substitution of direct human communication, even more now, to virtual online communication. The government bail-out projects for the economy are going to support the pharmaceutical companies that are going to monopolize the vaccines, the industrial agriculture companies that actually produce these viruses and other corporations. It is a permanent pathological repetition typical of the unjust, class-oriented capitalist system, which affects those who are already badly affected even more.
It must also be said that 72% of the world's causes of death are due to non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancers. In that list there are also respiratory diseases brought on not by infectious contagion but due to the effects of contamination in the cities, and their existing mostly private transportation systems. Everything that is being done now regarding the coronavirus from official authorities is based on the illusion in the capitalist system that the virus can be isolated and attacked without having to change the structural causes of the pandemic. This approach defines the pandemic as a technological problem, and the answer is to find a techno-fix, and increase the control situations in each country.
But is there any other possibility to face this crisis other than that of social isolation?
I want to clarify that I agree that measures of physical distancing, (not social), should be taken, but they should be accompanied by measures that can support those who are unable to do so because of their vulnerability. We should also be alert to question the selection of a particular disease which in this case is an infectious disease, and then to unleash a whole battery of what is a global attack on the Covid-19 pandemic, while on the one hand the structural causes are left unquestioned, but on the other hand a series of repressive measures are installed, including very authoritative policies proclaimed from above, saying to the people: "Do this, do the other, because we know what you have to do and what not."
All this is related to not seeing the root causes of the problem, the real causes. At the same time a narrative is being dictated to believe that the only ones who can handle the situation in which we live today globally, are those from above, from governments, companies, from the ones that would provide a solution and therefore we should accept all the conditions they impose on us. Given all of this, I believe that it is essential to rescue and strengthen collective and community-based bottom-up strategies of response.
On the one hand, we need to understand that it´s the peasant food webs that already reaches 70% of the world population. There are reports from ETC and GRAIN showing that 70% of the world population is mainly supported by small-scale production of campesinos, small farmers, also urban gardens, and other forms of food exchange and gathering that are small, decentralized, and local. This is what feeds most of humanity but it´s not enough because they have too little land. And it is not only healthier food, but it is the food system that really reaches most of the people. These alternatives should be strengthened and supported. We are called to a radical shift of paradigm to think of solutions with originations from below, decentralized, collective, seeds of solidarity. We could begin to vision and plan on how to take care of ourselves in the face of a threat that can infect us, but also take care of each other and continue working towards the creation of cultures that are critically questioning and contrary to the capitalist system, because this the source of the pathology infecting all humanity, nature, ecosystems and the planet .
Translated by Tupac Enrique, Tonatierra