The corona virus is keeping the world in a state of shock. But instead of fighting the structural causes of the pandemic, the government is simply focusing on emergency measures. Evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer Rob Wallace answers the questions of ‘Jabardakhal’ about the dangers of Covid-19, the responsibility of agribusiness and sustainable solutions to combat infectious diseases.
Q.1. While the British government had initially relied on herd immunity to justify their decision to refrain from preventive measures, the German pro-Nazi AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) activists are demanding authoritarian measures and forced quarantine. The Central Government of India, led by an ultra-right party famous for its authoritarian implementations, has invoked a colonial (1897) “Epidemic Act” in relation to the Corona outbreak. The Act includes provisions to give extreme power to bureaucrats, right to detain on suspicion, introduce temporary restrictive & authoritarian measures and provide legal immunity to government. How do you see such contrasting measures?
Rob Wallace: Pandemics are mirrors in which countries see themselves. Each ruling party will try to force their country to see itself in the party’s premises and platforms, even if those premises, and the actions that follow, worsen the country’s outbreak. In the U.S., for instance, President Trump closed the border with Mexico, even as many more confirmed cases of COVID-19, numbering now 360,000, and likely only a tenth of true infections, were already circulating ill-addressed within U.S. borders.
Indeed, for many of these parties, controlling the infection is hardly the first task at hand. Protecting power–or in these parties’ minds–projecting power comes first. So we have in these mirrors, one after the other, American racism, British Malthusianism, Nazi ghettoizing, and in the BJP, in a Fanonian inversion, a recapitulation of the worst of British colonialism. Indeed, all such sociopolitical manifestations are likely to make pandemic control worse. Neglect, letting COVID run rampant, violating population trust, and jailing people into clusters, each will only amplify the outbreak.
We’ve seen such outcomes before. As historian Mike Davis describes, 60% of deaths from the 1918 influenza pandemic occurred in western India where the British requisitioned food for export during a coincidental drought. At a time in which human solidarity within and between countries is the only path out from underneath a global pandemic, another program in ethnic cleansing pursued in the gruesome Trojan Horse of a deadly virus will only make matters worse. Scapegoating people is no more than a governmental effort to cover up its failure to prepare for the pandemic while pursuing its own Victorian genocide.
Q.2. There’s been a rumour of a biological trade war between US and China. It has gained momentum after disputed social media talks on US patents, articles published in ‘Granma’ and mutual accusations of Chinese Foreign Minister and CIA agents against each other. How do you see this circus?
Rob Wallace : Such utterly unfounded accusations are part and parcel of what I call pandemic theater. The efforts we just talked of to control populations within-country are rivaled only by attempts to pin blame for the present pandemic and its socioeconomic ramifications upon other countries. These are all modern updates on calling diseases after an international enemy, now spun into vast, unsubstantiated conspiratorial theories aimed at fast-talking debunkers into exhaustion. What were previously simplified into piquant aliases, such as the Spanish flu or the French disease, are now wound into stories about Wuhan labs or biowarfare gone amok.
Much as ufology–space saucers, aliens, and the like–both perpetrators of such frauds and their dupes are seeking a means by which to avoid grasping the material roots by which capital-led modes of production are increasing our vulnerabilities to the emergence of multiple pathogens of pandemic or near-pandemic capacity. We’ve seen in rapid succession upon deforestation and development H5N1, SARS-1, H1N1 (2009), MERS, H7N9, Ebola Makona, Zika, African swine fever, and now SARS-2 exit out of marginalized wild reservoirs across poultry and livestock and into human populations. Blaming an enemy allows rulers to avoid having to blame themselves for the sudden surge in multiple deadly diseases.
Q.3. Do you think that the world order is using the corona epidemic crisis to restrict international transactions and promote domestic trade for overcoming the global recession?
Rob Wallace : I don’t think the world order, if you mean the capitalist ruling class and its state enablers, is in any position to restrict international transactions, however much, for instance, President Trump attempts a nationalist economics the U.S. no longer has the might to impose upon the world. The virus itself is restricting trade by reducing effective demand, sickening workers, and cutting off supply lines. Hoarding is extending beyond the household to the state with the most ill-prepared nations, among them the U.S. and Britain, struggling to obtain enough COVID tests and personal protective equipment. Indeed, in the United States, abandoned by the federal government, individual states–New York, California, New Jersey–are competing on the black market for ventilators at many times their actual costs.
The stories are mind-boggling. The comptroller for the State of Illinois raced to meet up with some moving company executive who knew a guy who works with China’s factories, handing over a check for US$3.5 million in a McDonald’s parking lot like a drug deal, buying Illinois N95 masks and ventilators. After being continually outbid by his own federal government for medical supplies and equipment, the Republican governor of Massachusetts hatched a plot with China’s consul to the United States and American football team owner Robert Kraft to smuggle in supplies from China aboard the team’s private airplane. Jaw-dropping. And markers of a failing nation state. The richest country in the history of humanity.
Q.4. Despite the origin of corona outbreak and a huge population, China has been able to contain the spread of the disease. What is your take on this?
Rob Wallace : China bumbled the early days of the outbreak, squashing early whistleblowers, as its instincts tend toward, including a hero doctor who subsequently died from COVID-19 treating his patients. There was a real outside chance that if health authorities moved early enough, the outbreak could have been staunched before it hit the global travel network. No such luck. But upon realization the virus wasn’t cooperating with official decrees outlawing viral activity–as if viruses could read–China moved hard upon the outbreak, aiming for total disease suppression: quarantine for cases and family members, neighborhood blockades, and door-to-door checks. Some of the efforts appeared more actionism than good sense, including keeping people from returning to their homes at night, but not during the day, as if the virus clocks in a day job. But the Chinese state applied the full weight of its resources to match the scale of the disaster. The U.S. and Britain, on the other hand, refuse such efforts as a matter of realpolitik, having given up on its own public health as a commons decades ago, increasingly neglecting public health or selling it off as a lucrative fictitious commodity.
Why the difference? It isn’t merely a matter of neoliberal capitalism as opposed to China’s state capitalism. I take the world-systems theorists’ position that while the U.S., and previously Britain, is on the back end of its cycle of capital accumulation, cashing out on public resources, turning capital back into money to be squirreled away in the rich’s offshore accounts, China, at the start of its cycle of accumulation, is invested in building its new empire, including the kinds of physical and social infrastructures needed to support such global reach. So while its development, aimed largely at feeding its people domestically, is helping select for the emergence of new pathogens, including COVID-19, China is also invested in suppressing such outbreaks in ways the U.S. and Britain are utterly incapable as a matter of structural decay. As one joker on Twitter put it: “Coronavirus is too radical. America needs a more moderate virus that we can respond to incrementally.”
Q.5. Cubans have proposed the use of anti-viral medicine Interferon Alpha 2B as a possible cure. They are training Venezuelan doctors, assisting Chinese medical teams in Italy and has even allowed a ship containing corona infected patients & denied entry by many Caribbean countries to sail to its port as gestures of international solidarity. What is your view on the Cuban outlook of public health, epidemiological research and global solidarity? What should we adopt from them to combat such pathogenic outbreaks?
Rob Wallace: Isn’t that quite the inversion? Cuba (and China) sending doctors to NATO member Italy. Senegal turning COVID tests around in four hours, while in the U.S., few results are available before a week. Taiwan tests people at the airport for COVID-19, disinfects their suitcases, drives each person separately to your destination in a government-provided taxi, and gives you one app that tells you where in your area you can purchase a mask and another, slightly creepy, that lists local infections and their case histories. In the U.S., American passport holders are waved right on through past border officers. U.S. client state South Korea’s first COVID case was reported the same day as the United States’ first. South Korea’s per-capita caseload and deaths–presently 192 total for the entire country–are orders less than the 4000+ deaths in New York City alone. Part of the break with the conservative-liberal consensus against China, New York State’s governor accepted 100 ventilators from China. U.S. stature is evaporating in real time. No one is looking to it for assistance or advice.
Whatever its faults, Cuba has long been on the cutting edge of public health innovations despite its comparative poverty. Along with a political philosophy organized around the commons, it excels at the ergonomics in delivering population health services, simple fixes in logistics and popular education matched with the proper scale of state resources. Not that everything works every time. But it’s not in the business of monetizing people’s illnesses down to individual insurance plans 28 million people can’t afford at all and another 24 million can afford only in part. So it isn’t merely a matter of what specific drugs Cuba derives. That’s terrific, of course. It’s the broader ethos that’s the matter at hand. A global disease requires a global response. Solidarity is the order of the day. Internationalism must sweep away globalization. And countries who do not partake in such mutual aid will be left to their own devices during their time of need.