Mexicoâ€™s Swine Flu and the Globalization of Disease
Those conditions include: a rapid transition from small livestock production to industrial meat farms after NAFTA established incentives for foreign investment, the failed decentralization of Mexico’s health system along lines established by multilateral lending banks, lax and non-enforced environmental and health regulations as the Mexican government was forced to downsize, the increased flow of goods and persons across borders, and restricted access to life-saving medicines due to NAFTA intellectual property monopolies for pharmaceutical companies.
The swine flu alert in
But I didn’t feel an atmosphere of panic. Mexicans seem to have accepted the epidemic and changes in their lives with a combination of cultural fatalism and survival instincts although many are skeptical of the government’s claims and the measures taken.
The media has been providing a steady stream of real and generally non-alarmist information out about the risks. The flu is a mutant form of swine flu, human seasonal flu and bird flu. In itself, it is not lethal but it leads to complications of “atypical pneumonia”. It’s atypical because it’s out of season and because victims tend to concentrate in the middle age range. Unlike regular pneumonia that picks off the very young and the very old, deaths of this virus tend to be within the 20-40 range. No-one seems to know exactly why this is. In fact, it is the newness of the virus that has raised the alarm. It can be treated successfully with anti-virals but there is no vaccine for it.
The strategy is to avoid enclosed spaces with large numbers of people. Although people are obeying the measures and following recommendations, increasing doubts exist about the transparency and honesty of government information. A press conference by the Secretaries of Health and Labor on April 29 ended in chaos, with reporters yelling out questions to clear up contradictions between the official version that only 26 cases of swine flu had been confirmed in Mexico and reports of far greater numbers.
Swine Flu and the
Because of the population density of
However, the first reports came from
Silvia Ribeiro of the ETC Group told the Americas Program that Mexican officials “act like this is something that fell from the sky, but we’ve known for a long time that industrial livestock operations, especially hogs, are a breeding ground for recombinant viruses. Carroll Farms is just one example, an important one in this case, but it’s also true of industrial chicken farms.”
Anybody who has seen an industrial hog farm knows the risk of disease. The unimaginable concentrations of filth, corrals filled with sick and suffering animals pumped full of antibiotics, and buzzing with flies that then carry disease to the human population create a disease paradise.
As Mike Davis points out, “The paradox of this swine flu panic is that, while totally unexpected, it was accurately predicted. Six years ago, Science dedicated a major story to evidence that "after years of stability, the North American swine flu virus has jumped onto an evolutionary fast track".
NAFTA unleashed the spread of industrial livestock farms in
In 1994, the year NAFTA went into effect,
Banking on Disease
Livestock transnationals are not the only economic interests involved in preserving the dangerous situation that led to this epidemic. In an article entitled “An epidemic of profiteering”, she notes that the epidemic means big business for the pharmaceutical companies who hold patents on anti-viral medicines. “Shares in
Also to blame is neoliberal globalization and its impact on human health. Ribeiro has in interesting theory on why
SPP: Integrated Risk Management or Integrated Risks?
It’s ironic and inexcusable that the most integrated region in the world responded so poorly to the recent epidemic. One of the main selling points for the extension of NAFTA into the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) was that a working group was preparing integrated response to epidemics that would make all North Americans safer. In fact, this was one of the few publically announced activities of the secretive working groups that primarily devote their activities to making it easier for the Smithfields and Tysons to do business throughout the continent.
The SPP North American Plan declares that it provides a framework to accomplish the following:
* Detect, contain and control an avian influenza outbreak and prevent transmission to humans;
* Prevent or slow the entry of a new strain of human influenza into North America;
* Minimize illness and deaths; and
* Sustain infrastructure and mitigate the impact to the economy and the functioning of society
The Plan supposedly established mechanisms to coordinate actions, monitor outbreaks, and supervise animal farms.
Mexico despite being a poor country with greater risk of disease, had not received the technology needed to immediately analyze flu strains so had to send samples to the Canadian Health Ministry and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta for analysis. About a week was lost in this process. Moreover, as mentioned the CDC didn’t respond quickly or effectively.
Where was this plan when Perote was reporting illness and a local epidemic way back in March? Has this group done serious research on the risks of industrial livestock production? Why did the CDC take nearly a week to respond to reports of the Mexican epidemic?
The answers lie in what
As is the case with all of NAFTA, the top priority is business as usual. While closing the borders is not the answer, an investigation into the root causes of the epidemic must lead to a full accounting of the risks of globalization and industrial farming. Poor countries with poor health run the greatest risks and yet the current system gives their concerns short shrift and little resources.
A misplaced priority on profits over human health in the context of a globalized world led to this epidemic and its possibilities becoming the world’s latest pandemic.