The headlines have been apocalyptic – a new outbreak of swine flu is in danger of engulfing the world.
There are indeed reasons for concern. Normal seasonal type-A influenzas kill as many one million people a year globally. Even a modest increase in virulence, especially if combined with high incidence, could cause huge problems across the world.
The most lethal flu outbreak to date was in 1918-19. It killed more than 2 percent of humanity (40 to 50 million people) in a single winter.
The development of a swine flu that can be passed between humans was predictable. Influenza constantly changes and mutates to create new strains. There have already been several incidents of flu strains jumping species and unleashing a virulent pandemic.
Both the 1957 and 1968 flu pandemics are believed to have originated from the mixing of bird and human viruses inside pigs.
Concentrated poverty is one of the most important issues in what happens to a flu outbreak – how it is spread and who it hits.
Twenty million or more of the deaths in the 1918-19 flu outbreak were in poorest parts of India.
The toll of HIV/AIDS in the Global South and the two million children annually killed by malaria should be a warning that capitalism is willing to let poor people die, even of curable diseases.
The World Health Organisation, backed by Western leaders, has argued that pandemics can be contained by the rapid responses of medical bureaucracies. The idea is that the strain is identified and then dealt with by local populations getting enough anti-viral drugs.
Rather than working together to produce a vaccination for each new flu strain, which is unprofitable for the pharmaceutical companies because many new flu strains don’t reach pandemic level, governments tend to rely on generic anti-virals such as Tamiflu.
But frequently a moderate flu epidemic outstrips the vaccine prepared for it even in the richest countries. The British government says it only has enough anti-virals for half the population.
Repeated assaults on public sector health care as part of the neoliberal agenda have made it harder to deal with the problem.
A key factor behind new diseases such as the swine flu threat is the growing concentration of animal production without appropriate regulation or biological safeguards.
Food production is driven by a handful of giant global corporations. This means large numbers of livestock crammed together to maximise profits.
Two thirds of poultry production in Britain already takes place in flocks of over 100,000 birds.
In the US today 65 million pigs are concentrated in just 65,000 facilities, compared to 53 million pigs on more than one million farms in 1965.
In such huge units animals are more prone to disease, which can rapidly spread and evolve into more deadly forms.
In order to boost growth and guard against illnesses, the corporations pump animals full of antibiotics, including ones used to treat human diseases.
Cuts in the regulation and monitoring of the meat industry also create huge dangers.
Only last week Alistair Darling announced plans in the budget to save £44 million by cutting “animal disease surveillance through a more risk-based approach to monitoring and enforcement and by sharing costs with industry”.
Corporate domination of food, healthcare and pharmaceuticals all contribute to the threat of a flu pandemic – and so do the acts of governments that allow these corporations to dominate world politics.
As the US author Mike Davies puts it, “Perhaps it is not surprising that Mexico lacks both capacity and political will to monitor livestock diseases, but the situation is hardly better north of the border, where surveillance is a failed patchwork of state jurisdictions, and corporate livestock producers treat health regulations with the same contempt with which they deal with workers and animals.”