Coronavirus: an effect of global agribusiness

February 10, 2020
Written by Elaine Graham-Leigh
Published in Analysis
Coronavirus. Photo: wikimedia commons

Coronavirus. Photo: wikimedia commons

Growing profit first and food second is the reason for the virus. Look to modern industrial farming for the culprit, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

As the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak outstrips that from Sars, media attention seems to be focusing on how the authoritarian Chinese regime shut down early warnings that a new virus was infecting people in Wuhan. It’s clear that, as with the Sars virus outbreak in 2003, the Chinese government were as concerned to cover up the reality of the situation as they were to prevent the virus from spreading. The death of Li Wenliang, who highlighted the outbreak in December, is a tragedy. It is important, however, that we don’t allow the failures of the Chinese government’s response to the virus to become the explanation for its emergence in the first place.

From the beginning of the epidemic, accounts of its origin in the market in Wuhan have stressed how this was a market selling live fish and animals as well as meat, including a range of exotic species like ‘snakes, turtles and cicadas, guinea pigs, bamboo rats, badgers, hedgehogs, otters, palm civets, even wolf cubs.’ The implication of this is that it was the presence of one of these species in the market which brought humans into contact with the disease. In this view, then, coronavirus is caused by weird Chinese dietary practices and allowed to spread by weird Chinese authoritarianism. It’s a Chinese problem that the rest of the world is now suffering from.

This racist construction of the coronavirus story has real consequences for Chinese communities in the UK, who report a ‘shocking’ rise in racist incidents since the disease hit the news, including Asian young people being attacked and pelted with eggs. It also ignores the way in which modern agribusiness is the real cause of new, deadly diseases.

We don’t yet know from which species we got this coronavirus. Despite the widespread reports, it isn’t even clear that it did originate in that Wuhan market, as the person who became the earliest coronavirus case was not associated with it . What we do know, though, is that modern industrial farming, with huge facilities housing thousands of animals and birds, creates the perfect conditions for the viruses which these species carry to combine and develop variants which can then cross to humans. The flu family of viruses has shown this repeatedly.

The spread of cultivation into areas which were previously habitats for wild species also brings us into contact with new, deadly diseases. Ebola, for example, is carried by a species of fruit bat, which when deprived of its usual habitat by development has a habit of taking up residence in palm oil plantations. Incursions into the bat’s territory for palm oil production correlates with the major Ebola outbreaks.

The point here is that new diseases like this coronavirus outbreak are not caused by local failings but are an inescapable part of the way that global agribusiness concerns go about their business. As Rob Wallace commented in his excellent Big Farms Make Big Flu, they are the inevitable result of ‘an ecological system built on growing money first.’ As Wallace suggests, rather than naming the diseases after the species we think they came from, like swine flu or avian flu, we should call them after the multinational that owns the facility they developed in. It would at least show where the real fault lies.

It is possible that, given the already sluggish state of the global economy, the effect of disruption because of the coronavirus could trigger a new global slump. It is by no means certain, but if it did, it would be an example of how capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. The pattern with previous disease outbreaks connected to agribusiness has been that they have worked to the benefit of major corporations, as the ramifications have hit smaller farmers harder than the big, industrial operations. It may be, though, that this time, the chickens (or pigs, or fruit bats) will come home to roost.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade, focusing on issues of climate change and social justice. She speaks and writes widely on green issues and is a member of Counterfire. Her book, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, will be published in April 2015 by Zero Books.