Swine flu and the pig system
18 May 2009. A World to Win News Service. The following article was sent to us by the Revolutionary People's Movement of Mexico (http://mpr-mexico.blogspot.com)
The new strain of influenza now called A/H1N1 brought the threat of a global pandemic, causing the death of 58 Mexicans as of 12 May. It' s very possible that the emergence of this disease was accelerated in a large-scale capitalist pig farm such as Granjas Carroll in Puebla and Veracruz. There's no doubt that the nature of the capitalist system we live in has made it more deadly.
The risk of a pandemic, like the three major pandemics of the last century in 1918, 1957 and 1968 that resulted in the deaths of millions of people around the world, arises when through genetic recombination or mutation a new strain of influenza appears that is easily transmissible among human beings and to which, because it is new, people haven't developed resistance.
Capitalist industrial pig farms: breeding grounds for dangerous new diseases
Big capitalist pig farms organized, by definition, around the principle of maximum private profit and not that of their usefulness to society, have enormously speeded up the recombination of influenza viruses (the process of different flu strains trading genes). Pig bodies are perfect for breeding new flu strains. Often viruses that originated in birds, pigs and humans genetically recombine in them, producing strains that are transmissible between humans. It's believed that this is what happened with previous pandemics, and most scientists believe that this is the case with the new strain A/H1N1, which combines genetic materials from pigs, birds and humans.
This process has been facilitated and accelerated during the last few decades by the transformation of traditional hog farms into giant industrial complexes like Granjas Carroll in Puebla and Veracruz that produce a million pigs a year. Suffocated by intense overcrowding and the resulting enormous amounts of excrement, the pigs there very quickly interchange pathogens. An early alarm bell went off in 1998 when a highly pathological strain devastated a swine herd at a farm in North Carolina in the U.S. Since then new variants have begun to appear almost every year. As an article by Bernice Wuethrich in Science magazine reported in 2003, "after years of stability, the North American porcine influenza virus has leaped into the evolutionary fast lane."
Last year a U.S.-based Pew Investigation Centre report on "animal production on industrial farms" warned, "The continual recycling of viruses... in big flocks and herds will increase the opportunities for the generation of novel viruses, through mutations or recombinant events, that could facilitate more effective human-to-human transmission." These investigations have been systematically obstructed by the big industrial firms in this sector, among them Smithfield Foods, fined in the U.S. in 1997 for serious environmental damage and health risks. Smithfield owns half the stock of Granjas Carroll.
Various journalists on the scene in Puebla and Veracruz have reported that the Granjas Carroll sites there are hell on earth. The surrounding communities are filled with the fetid odour and swarms of flies coming out of these farms, along with the methane gas produced in the oxygenation ponds or "bio-digesters", pits filled with discarded pigs felled by disease and wounds or trampled to death. The black water in them is a toxic mix of faeces, urine and residues of chemicals, biological agents and antibiotics. In 2003 Conagua (the Mexican water commission) presented abundant proof of water contamination, but withdrew its accusations in 2006 under pressure from the company. For years local inhabitants have been protesting against the destruction of the environment and the persistent gastrointestinal and respiratory illness caused by the farms, but the government' s only response has been to arrest five environmental activists from these communities, at the company's insistence, on trumped-up charges of robbery and "attacking thoroughfares".
It was exactly in one of these areas, in the community called La Gloria in the municipality of Perote in Vera Cruz, that a severe outbreak of respiratory disease broke out on 9 March of this year. It eventually infected 616 of the 2,155 inhabitants. No medication was available to treat the sick and three children died.
The people attributed the outbreak to contamination from the company. A municipal health worker indicated that preliminary investigations identified flies as the vector (origin) of the outbreak. Although both the company and the main authorities denied this, they nevertheless imposed a sanitary cordon (clean zone around the site) and fumigated for flies.
Unnecessary deaths at the hands of a criminal health system
The Health Minister himself, Jose Angel Cordova, said in a 27 April TV press conference that the first case or one of the first cases of swine flu (renamed "human flu" by the World Health Organization to protect the pork industry) was the child Edgar Hernandez. The first sample of the disease was available from 2 April, and a case notice report published 30 April by the Atlanta (U.S.) Centers for Disease Control indicated that a case had been confirmed in Mexico on 15 March, without going into details.
The health authorities themselves have pointed out that one of the main causes of deaths in this epidemic has been a delay in treating patients. And one of the causes for this delay was the criminal negligence of the Mexican health system, which had a sample of this new flu strain as of 2 April but failed to warn the population until 21 days later, which certainly resulted in unnecessary deaths.
The sample wasn't analysed until much later, partially because of the fatal flaws in the health system overall, which lacked both personnel and the necessary equipment and supplies, and partially because, due to the dismantling of the health system in recent decades, the test needed to identify new virus strains (polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, a process that amplifies genetic material) wasn't available in Mexico. For instance, in the 1990s the Ernesto Zedillo government closed the National Institute of Hygiene and the National Virology Institute responsible for investigating virus strains and developing vaccines. The following government of Vincente Fox in 2000 cut back the budget for the Birmex, the national institution that previously produced vaccines, immunoglobulins (used by the immune system to fight infections) and reagents (substances used in tests). This was despite the scientific community's persistent warnings of the danger of new viruses, especially after the 1997 outbreak of avian influenza in Asia.
The WHO and the Pan-American Health Organization questioned the Mexican authorities about the outbreak of unusual cases of pneumonia (often the immediate cause of death in flu victims) on 11 April. The Mexican government answered by saying that "The [Perote] event is over." The Mexican health authorities didn't send samples to laboratories in Canada and the U.S. (which finally confirmed the existence of the new flu strain) until atypical influenza cases broke out in Mexico City, San Luis Potosi, Baja California and Oaxaca. In the latter case, an inspection carried out by the State Medical Arbitrage Commission concluded that because of overcrowding, the hospital where it occurred was "a Petri dish" for epidemics. The facility had been faced with treating more than 240 patients with only 120 beds. As late as 22 April, when some 20 deaths due to swine flu had been officially tallied at the national level, the Health Minister insisted that this was probably just "the tail end" of a seasonal flu epidemic from the U.S., an ordinary disease which most people were already resistant to. He warned against yielding to "panic".
Missing: testing facilities, medication, timely treatment and even facemasks
When finally it was established that this was a new and potentially dangerous variety of flu, a health emergency was declared the next day and schools were suspended in the Federal District and the surrounding state of Mexico. Cordova himself began to sow panic by releasing information that grew increasingly confused and contradictory every day. The numbers rose and fell daily because the new strain was being confused with other kinds of influenza and ordinary pneumonia. His office refused to release any specific information about confirmed cases of the new viral infection. While the official discourse insisted that everything was "under control", thousands of people were experiencing a very different reality that was being covered up by the mainstream media. Doctors from the prominent La Raza National Medical Centre of the Mexican National Social Security Institute (IMSS) complained that they didn't even have facemasks. When Alfonso Morales Escobar took his mother to the Dario Fernandez hospital for government employees (ISSSTE) with influenza-like symptoms corresponding to those the authorities had warned about, and asked for the flu test they had bragged about, the doctor answered, "What test? The authorities are telling a lot of lies. Let them come here and see for themselves that we don't have any testing facilities, no medication, no nothing. They find it very easy to fool the people." There have been several exposures of the lack of anti-viral medications, adequate equipment and treatment in other hospitals.
The case of Oscar reported in El Pais 3 May is highly illustrative. He was "five years and seven months old. On Thursday, 16 April, the child fell ill. His mother took him to Social Security clinic number 11. 'They wouldn't take him,' his aunt said, 'because he didn't have a fever. They told us it was just ordinary flu.' That afternoon Oscar began to vomit and they took him to another Social Security clinic. They wouldn't treat him there, either. The next day, at six in the morning, Oscar went into convulsions, and this time he was admitted to an emergency room. Five hours later the boy was already gravely ill with pneumonia. They took him to an intensive care ward, along with eight other children... he died nine days after the first symptoms, having suffered a terrible ordeal as he was taken from hospital to hospital."
Repressive measures and opportunities for juicy profits
The last straw – underlining the deep antagonism between the state apparatus that serves the ruling classes and the great majority of the people – came when Mexican president Felipe Calderon took advantage of the health emergency to issue a new repressive decree permitting the authorities to enter "any and all kinds of offices or homes" with no court order, to isolate people against their will and to "prevent any gatherings" under the pretext of "the existence of a danger to internal security" that could include, among other things, the threat of "an uprising." The presidential candidate Marcelo Ebrard, head of the Federal District government, tried to show that he could be as "hard" against the people as anyone else, applying, among other measures, a banning of prison visits, which mean cutting off the supplies of food and water that families bring their jailed relatives. This prohibition wasn't lifted until inmates and family members clashed with prison guards and police.
Although the number of A/N1H1 cases in Mexico is stable or falling now, this doesn't necessarily mean we've seen the end of this new flu strain. Many experts have said that it will probably reappear next winter, when the season is right for flu viruses to thrive. As for the anti-viral medications effective in treating influenza symptoms, the people's fate is in the hands of the big pharmaceutical corporations like the Swiss company Roche (the maker of oseltamvivir phosphate, marketed as Tamiflu) and the UK's GlaxoSmithKline (the maker of zanomivir, sold as Relenza). So far these companies have successfully fought off demands to produce cheaper generic drugs. The Swiss-based Novartis and the American company Baxter International claim to be taking up the responsibility for the making of a vaccine with the blessings of the WHO. Before the present crisis, the Mexican government signed an agreement for the Sanofi–Aventis multinational company to manufacture vaccines in Mexico. The value of these companies' stocks has jumped as the possibility of juicy profits made at the cost of human suffering comes into view.
A pig system – the people's health demands a radically different system
All this demonstrates that the worst thing about this virus is the world capitalist system and its expression in Mexico. The giant enterprises producing toxic waste that are suspect number one of having facilitated the recombination of this and other potentially dangerous diseases, on the one hand, and the lack of sanitary vigilance and the dismantling of the only health system to which the great majority of people have access, on the other, have resulted in unnecessary deaths. The official handling of the crisis, aside from the official discourse, was deplorable. The production of antiviral medications and a vaccine to confront the underlying persistent danger continues to be at the mercy of the profits of a handful of transnational companies.
This reflects the fundamental contradiction of the system we live under, between socialized production (with its potential to meet the needs of everyone) and private capitalist appropriation (or, more simply put, the fact that capitalists' profit are what determines what's produced and how). The socialized, technically advanced production of modern society is completely capable of producing enough to feed everyone on the planet (as UN studies showed even back in the 1960s) while limiting ecological damage, but many people are still starving and many get sick and die because of these productive systems that destroy the environment. Such considerations don't generate profits for corporations like Smithfield Foods and Granjas Carroll.
The government is not just a company, but ultimately it serves those interests – the interests of the imperialists and the Mexican big capitalists and landowners. This can be clearly seen in the collapse of the public health system. It's just not considered profitable or advantageous for capitalist profits, as long as there exists a parallel private system where, with luck, some people can get adequate care, if they have enough money. It can also be seen in the government's cold "cost/benefit" calculations when it comes to the health emergency. What are these gentlemen talking about? If we strip away the humanitarian rhetoric, their policies are made according to a cold economic calculation of profits and losses. The question they asked themselves was: will such-and-such steps hurt the economy and profits more than the spread of the epidemic, by resulting in employee absenteeism and other losses? These gentlemen didn't even factor in the potential unnecessary loss of human life. Everything comes down to money. Once again, modern socialized, technologically advanced production is totally capable of providing the necessary equipment to confirm the nature of this and other virus strains, and of providing high quality preventative medical care and the necessary medications, but this is not done for the vast majority of people because it's not consistent with seeking the highest possible profit. It's not simply a question of malice or corruption, although there' s plenty of that, and it’s no accident that in this crisis the elected representatives of all the main political parties fully demonstrated the basic antagonism between the interests they serve and those of the vast majority. At the end of the day the government has to serve the interests of the prevailing economic system, and the system's basic contradiction between socialized production and private capitalist appropriation is also reflected in state policies.
It doesn't have to be like this and it shouldn't. New Democratic revolution can take the ownership and control of the main economic resources out of the hands of a few big corporations and sweep away the state that defends and protects the functioning of this system. The shackles of capitalist appropriation need to be removed. The chains of imperialist domination have to be broken and the door opened to socialism, with the transformation of private appropriation into social appropriation, appropriation by society as a whole, so that the immense productive potential of the economy can serve humanity's needs and protect the planet, instead of the thirst for profit of a handful who are causing so much destruction and unnecessary suffering. Such a revolutionary transformation is necessary and possible, and this most recent health crisis shows that the people's health demands it.
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