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How Corporations Make Pandemics Deadlier

Lethal new diseases are springing up at alarming rates, and modern globalized capitalism is behind it.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In early 2009, a toddler named Édgar Hernández, of La Gloria, Mexico, came down with a fever and a nasty, persistent cough. Doctors told his parents he was suffering from a mysterious respiratory ailment, and his illness would set off a series of containment measures that now feel intimately familiar, with emergency press conferences and schools closing all over Mexico.

Just a few miles from where Hernández grew up, in La Gloria, sits one of the eight industrial hog farms Smithfield Foods has set up in that part of Mexico since the 1990s, when Nafta sent American conglomerates south, seeking cheaper labor and looser environmental standards. By 2009, the La Gloria plant was producing nearly one million pigs every year, many of them drinking water polluted with their own blood and feces. After Hernández fell ill, reports began circulating that the hogs on the farm had spread the disease, a lethal swine flu. Within weeks, nearly 400 people across the state had contracted the disease. Two babies had died. And in Washington, the pork industry lobbied the World Health Organization to rebrand the virus with its more technical moniker, H1N1. The outbreak, they insisted, was an “unfortunate coincidence.” That may have been true within the single outbreak in La Gloria—but six of H1N1’s eight genetic segments could be traced to industrial hog operations in North Carolina.

H1N1 wasn’t the first disease to jump from animals to humans—the Black Death, for instance, was spread by rats—but over the past several decades, alarmingly, these interspecies transfers have become far more frequent. Starting in the 1970s, zoonotic illnesses, as they’re known, began to move from species to species at a rapid pace, triggering an uptick of plagues from AIDS to Ebola and, now, to Covid-19. (As with several of these illnesses, the coronavirus is believed to have come from bats, although scientists are still debating how it jumped from those winged creatures to humans, with many thinking that pangolins, a scaly species of anteater, were the intermediary.) All manner of conspiracy theories have been floated to explain these diseases: The novel coronavirus has been spuriously linked to the Chinese Communist Party, 5G cellular networks, and the CIA. The simpler and more frustrating answer is that globalized capitalism itself is a petri dish for disease. As corporations raze forests, slaughter animals, and spew out greenhouse gases, they’re bringing us closer to a future that could well produce outbreaks even deadlier than the coronavirus pandemic.

Following science’s triumph over polio, smallpox, and rheumatic fever, two prominent virologists, David O. White and MacFarlane Burnet, wrote in 1972 that the future of the fight against infectious diseases would likely be “very dull.” That confidence wouldn’t last long. Starting in 1981, for the first time since such records were kept, more people died of infectious disease than had the previous year—mainly of AIDS. As Laurie Garrett details in The Coming Plague, at a three-day conference in 1989, American researchers began sounding the alarm that there was a dangerous wave of infectious disease building. The AIDS epidemic—which sprang from the consumption of bushmeat—had already killed thousands. It wasn’t a fluke but a sign of things to come.

New viruses, many of them zoonotic, were already wiping out animal populations—and triggering blood cancers and hepatitis in humans. “Our message is that the problem is serious,” Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg warned a few years later, “it’s getting worse, and we need to increase our efforts to overcome it.” Over the next decade, his predictions were borne out. New diseases such as Hendra and Ebola spilled over from animals to humans with deadly consequences. For the most part, they ravaged the global south. In 1999, the Nipah virus, which causes only mild cases of encephalitis, or brain inflammation, when it passes from fruit bats to pigs, produced a mortality rate as high as 75 percent when it reached humans who had come into close contact with the livestock.

In fact, animal agriculture would prove a reliable vector for many of these diseases. As zoonotic diseases exploded, so too did global meat consumption, doubling between 1961 and 2014 as trade policy, subsidies, and ramped-up labor exploitation made meat impossibly cheap.

Seeking boosted profits and productivity, gargantuan livestock corporations such as Smithfield and Tyson bunched animals up in ever more concentrated and specialized corporate facilities, where workers loaded them with antibiotics that undermined their immune systems. When the avian flu broke out at the Thai facilities of the massive agribusiness conglomerate CP Foods, the company actually collaborated with the Thai government to increase its poultry production, paying off contract farmers to keep quiet about the sick birds. Factory farming techniques aligned with regulatory capture to form a perfect vessel not just for zoonotic illness but all types of diseases. Malaria, for instance, thrives in marshy deforested areas. As corporations, especially cattle farming conglomerates, have razed the Amazon in recent years, they caused a global increase in the disease. One 2019 study found that malaria had risen more than 3 percent over the previous decade, and rates were much higher in communities that bordered the Amazon.

Hellishly, rising temperatures will only make this phenomenon worse. Deforestation is one of a few factors sapping the world’s tropical forests of their ability to absorb greenhouse gases. Released into the atmosphere, those extra emissions drive up temperatures and help destroy animal habitats, forcing more species to butt up against another and swap contagions. In other words, the climate crisis is not only making our weather more chaotic as temperatures rise; it’s also helping to create new strains of dangerous diseases. The unceasing quest for market efficiency has trickled down into microbiology—making illnesses more lethal, and providing them more opportunities to jump from one animal species to another before landing on us humans. And the economic status quo is preventing solutions from taking hold, too.

Consider the hobbled state of coronavirus relief efforts. In 2006, a Department of Health and Human Services initiative sought to mass produce cheap, portable ventilators to meet the demands of a pandemic. But the project ran aground six years later, when the medical device giant Covidien acquired the company contracted to make the ventilators. And hospitals, operating on razor-thin margins, have been forced to sell off their reserves of ventilators and personal protective equipment to satisfy investors and management consultants. “You can’t have extra capacity and efficiency at the same time,” Mount Sinai’s chair of emergency medicine told FiveThirtyEight during the coronavirus pandemic. “In fact, for years, we’ve called that waste.”

We may not see the full horror of Covid-19 until it settles into the global south. Countries throughout Africa and Latin America have been on the losing end of decades of International Monetary Fund–imposed belt-tightening that have starved public health systems in the name of lean, balanced national budgets. In Uganda, a punishing austerity package in the 1990s prioritized debt service over health care spending. The country now has just 55 intensive care unit beds for 43 million people. Doctors make around US$800 a month on average, with nurses and other support staff earning far less. Nurses and midwives there have protested a shortage of personal protective equipment, noting that just 19.4 percent have adequate PPE as they battle the virus.

The funding and political will to solve a problem like a pandemic tend to last only so long as the outbreak does. Covid-19 offers a fleeting chance to mandate that the pharmaceutical industry produce life-saving drugs instead of the most profitable ones; to look upstream and address the corporate malpractice fueling fierce diseases; and to invest in a public health system capable of treating and snuffing out future outbreaks. Private enterprise may smoothly churn out pork chops and expensive medical equipment, but it’s not built for preventing and handling pandemics. The coronavirus crisis—layered on top of so many others—offers an ultimatum for governments in the twenty-first century: Prioritize human well-being over corporate profits, or suffer the consequences.