Swine Time

April 27, 2009

It’s been a long time since we had a proper pandemic scare. The threat from Avian Flu petered out disappointingly for vaccine manufacturers and general doomsayers. SARS, despite its terrifying name (“Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome”) proved a little too coy. As for Ebola, well, that surfaces every now and then in missives from the Congo jungle, but its extreme ability to kill human hosts has seriously restricted its global star potential.

Swine Flu is a new one to me though. Apparently, calling a transmissible influenza simply “flu” isn’t enough these days. Times past it used to be the done thing to label outbreaks after nations, like the “Spanish Flu” (thought to have originated in Asia) which killed over 50 million people in 1918. Now, however, we like to attach animals to our anxieties, blaming the gene pools of migratory birds and captive hogs when humans start dropping from unusual ailments.

But the astute among us reasoned during the last Avian Flu scare, that the deeper roots of the phenomenon might lie not in the chromosomes of our animal buddies, but in the business strategies of corporations which seek to exploit those animals for profit. Poultry farms in Vietnam and Indonesia were linked to initial animal-human transmission. The movement of birds for sale around the world, not migratory fowl, probably spread the dreaded H5N1 (not, you might have thought, a devastating chess move) around the world.

Now this Swine Flu outbreak is little different. Reports from Mexico, where the outbreak has centred, suggest that a major source of the pathogen responsible could be manure pools around the massive hog farms in Vera Cruz state. Inspections of the waste near the town of Perote apparently found that the virus was being transmitted by flies feeding on the mass of pig faeces. As Tom Philpott of Grist Magazine relates, the Mexican daily La Jornada has directly linked what seems to be the initial Swine Flu cluster to manure piles which have been produced by the 950,000 hogs reared by Granjas Carroll, a corporation owned by the American meat giant Smithfield Foods.

Operations like Granjas Carroll routinely ferry hogs around the world and dose their wards up with antibiotics and other delights in order to fatten them up as quickly as possible for restless American consumers. They externalise the effects of this behaviour onto communities around their farms (a generous term for what they really are – massive pork factories) and make off with huge profits in the process. One such externality appears to be the 68 or more Mexicans who have died from Swine Flu thus far.

Writer Christopher C Cook also reported in his book “Diet for a Dead Planet” that discharges from such farms killed over 13 million fish in the United States between 1995 and 1998 as algal blooms fed on the nitrogen that it contained.

On the human rights side of things, a 2005 report from the research NGO Human Rights Watch found that Smithfield Foods systematically employed illegal migrant workers in its North Carolina plants and subjected them to intense exploitation, far below that permitted for unionised or even non-unionised American workers (naturally, Smithfield despises unions but that’s another story).

One worker told HRW that “In the packing department everything is fast, fast [rapido, rapido]. I was sick a lot from the cold and the damp. I never wanted to make a claim against the company because they fire people and they might call Immigration.”

When unionists sought to organize their undocumented colleagues, the company employed anti-union “consultants” to spread disinformation intended to prevent them from joining. As HRW documented, “Anti-union consultants told Latino workers that the union was dominated by black workers and that the organizing drive was really an effort by African-Americans-the majority of employees at the plant-to get rid of Latino workers and take all the jobs for black people. They told the reverse to black workers.”

The Smithfield plants in North Carolina are hell-pits, where Black and Latino workers are segregated to prevent them communicating and organizing to demand better conditions and wages. The corporation is happy to lie to its own workers in order to keep those pesky living wages off the balance sheets.

Now Smithfield is claiming that its Mexican turd-pools are “Swine Flu free.” I suspect that they will have to do a lot better than that to convince anyone aware of their corporate pedigree.

So it looks like this terrifying outbreak is a corporate creation – as most food related scares are these days. Keep the migratory birds out of it (or migratory hogs for that matter), as this is almost certainly a food-related epidemic.

Regardless of that, governments around the world are taking a perverse delight in the advent of the outbreak. Events like this are irresistible opportunities to appear competent, particularly so at a time when numerous governments are widely seen as deeply corrupt, virtually criminal enterprises who are more interested in siphoning masses of tax monies to embarassingly useless banks.

The British government, for example, has invoked the sleak sounding COBRA system in response to an air steward falling ill (“flu like symptoms”) on returning from Mexico. COBRA is actually just a cabinet meeting in a slightly more secure location, but it sounds high powered and interesting.

Barack Obama, meanwhile, has done his bit for Big Pharma by being publicly tested for Swine Flu. The president apparently met a Mexican a few weeks back who promptly died of the disease, or something else entirely, we aren’t sure what. Actually perhaps we are. The Mexican government claims that the man, an archaeologist, died of a heart attack. Still, we can’t be too careful with messiahs.

In economic developments (don’t laugh) the usual cycle of unrelated event-market decline-market rallies stories have done the rounds. Initial reports suggested that the Swine Flu outbreak had devastated markets. Luckily, the markets also included corporations who will benefit mightily from scaring billions of people through hyping medical threats. Glaxo Smithkline rose, but tragically, sausage and pork product peddlers saw some worrying declines….

But over all that, this somewhat indeterminate medical event has been a godsend for governments who aren’t particularly well liked by their people. It might even get rid of a few of them, you never know. But regardless of that, it takes the heat of their actual policies and directs attention on their postures – their “readiness” and “dynamism” not their utterly spurious terror operations or disgusting policing of protests.

And it shifts free papers, which lets the purple coated chaps get home earlier so it can’t be all bad.

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