PETER SAINSBURY. Corona-myths: shifting the blame to preserve privilege. Part 1 of 2.

Apr 16, 2020

Myths about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, who is to blame and characteristics of the global response abound. In Part 1 I explore seven myths, the most significant being that the pandemic could not have been predicted. These myths are being used to obscure the truth, shift responsibility and perpetuate existing power and privilege.

Many myths are being promulgated about coronavirus, and I’m not talking about conspiracy theories that the Americans or the Chinese or the Martians started it intentionally. I’m referring to the myths politicians, experts and journalists are promoting in the blanket media coverage.

First myth: it’s all been caused by a few uneducated people with bizarre beliefs and dangerous habits i.e. if Chinese people weren’t selling live wild animals in open markets for locals to eat, this pandemic would never have occurred. Unfortunately, focusing on the final seller, buyer and eater of ‘bush meat’ completely ignores the long line of poaching, trafficking, trading, captive breeding, slaughter and butchering of wild animals – for instance tigers, rhinos, pangolins, snakes, hedgehogs, bats, etc. – for consumption as food, drink and ‘medicine’. I am horrified by intra- and inter-national wild animal trafficking and would like to see the trade stopped immediately, particularly as I am not aware of any reliable evidence that demonstrates that eating the flesh of wild beasts or using any of their body parts for medicinal purposes confers any health benefits.

I am, however, reluctant to attach responsibility for this despicable trade and its associated inhumane practices to the humans at each end of the chain: the poor poachers in developing countries who consider poaching to be their only opportunity to make a living (and who see wealthy foreigners and their multinationals plundering their country’s other natural resources) and the people who consume the end products because of necessity or cultural beliefs or because they are being villainously misled by political or financial profiteers. Between the poachers and the workers in wild animal breeding farms at one end and the consumers at the other lies a global web of criminal syndicates and inept and corrupt politicians and government officials. Let’s not focus the blame on the people who frequent wet markets in some Asian countries or the people who catch and eat, say, monkeys in West Africa. Rather, let us recognise and target the organisers and facilitators of the criminal activity and the circumstances that drive struggling people to be involved.

Second myth: whoever was to blame, it certainly wasn’t me/us For sure, pandemics have not tended to originate in recent years in Paris, Sydney or Alice Springs.  However, the populations of rich, developed nations are in no position to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude; not the West’s mega-consumers of food, fibre and fuel  from developing countries: not the bankers and investors of New York and London who wouldn’t know a pangolin from an aardvark; not the CEOs of ‘respectable’ multinational corporations looting the resources and exploiting the workers of poor countries from their comfortable offices in Melbourne and Leverkusen. Satisfying the extravagant (in terms of sustainability and equity) lifestyles, consumption patterns and profit-seeking of developed nations has led to the plunder of developing countries which continues to this day, admittedly sometimes with the cooperation of their corrupt governments.

Of direct relevance to novel infections, the clearing of forests and grasslands in Asia, Africa and South America for mining and agribusiness has brought humans into close contact with micro-organisms that were previously contained within partially cocooned, remote ecosystems. This has allowed coronaviruses, for instance, to move from their natural hosts, with which they have co-existed for millennia, to humans and their domesticated animals, their pets and livestock. Degraded ecosystems  are created where resilient ones once stood and the substituted monocultures of palm oil, soy, cattle, pigs, chickens, etc. are vulnerable to infections, particularly the livestock which are fed antibiotics and hormones to speed up growth and bulk up body mass. Little of the produce is for local consumption. Most of the farm produce is destined to feed and clothe populations in much wealthier countries, while the fossil fuels and minerals provide power and essential materials for the West’s lifestyles and consumer products.

Anthropogenic climate change has also increased the possibility of novel infections being passed to humans by reducing biodiversity, degrading ecosystems, forcing animal and plant species to relocate to stay within their climatic comfort zone (where they are able), and changed the behaviours and migration patterns of many animals. People in developed nations most certainly cannot wash their hands of responsibility for coronavirus and other novel infections.

Third myth: we are at war with coronavirus and we must defeat it. This is exactly the sort of thinking that has got us into trouble with coronavirus, climate change and environmental degradation generally. This line of thought posits that it is humanity’s right to subdue nature, to exploit the world’s natural organic and inorganic resources regardless of the consequences. According to this uninformed thinking, micro-organisms must be eradicated; they are at best an inconvenience and more seriously an ever-present invisible threat. ‘Kills 99% of all household germs’ is a typical example of this approach.

Clean water supplies, efficient sewage systems, drainage of wetlands, hygienic food standards, antibiotics, immunisation, etc. led to dramatic decreases in infectious diseases in developed countries in the 20th century and a misconception grew that infectious diseases had been conquered. What this hubris ignored, however, is that bacteria and viruses have co-evolved over millennia with higher organisms, including humans, for mutual benefit.  While we might be able to eradicate one or two infectious agents (for instance the smallpox virus), we will never be able to eradicate the overwhelming majority. In fact, we don’t want to. We need them individually and collectively just as much as they need us. Infectious agents are not an enemy that can be defeated; they are fellow inhabitants of planet Earth that we must learn to live with.

Fourth myth: we’re all in this together. HA! Tell that to Indigenous populations around the world, to the people of Sub-Saharan Africa, to the 500 million predicted to be pushed into poverty in the aftermath of coronavirus. It’s difficult to know what to feel about this sick joke: should I feel pity for the gullible who believe it or disgust with the deceivers who promote it? It isn’t true at the individual level: think runs on toilet paper, city folk decamping to their holiday homes, and the corona-induced anti-Asian racism displayed by some Australians. It isn’t true at the corporate level: Gina Rinehart has, reportedly, been lobbying the government to take this opportunity to reduce workers’ protections (similar to WorkChoices) and Choice magazine has started a campaign for legislation to stop price gouging following examples of extortionate mark-ups on food and household items.

It isn’t true at the national level: one million casual workers and temporary visa holders have been excluded from Australia’s JobKeeper and JobSeeker provisions. Also, the latter provides $400 a fortnight less than the former, suggesting that the government still regards unemployed people as less deserving and retains ideas about ‘Lifters and Leaners’ and ‘a fair go for those who have a go’. Nor do the NSW and Commonwealth politicians and government agencies squabbling over responsibility for the Ruby Princess affair present as a solid team.

Finally, togetherness is sadly lacking internationally: Trump blocked the transfer of legitimately purchased medical supplies to Canada and Italy’s desperate call to its EU partners for help did not receive a single response. ‘We’re all in this together’ is yet another example of calls by the privileged for everyone to share the pain when there’s hardship to be endured but silence about sharing when the good times return; privatise the profits and nationalise the debts.

Fifth myth: we’re all socialists now. Please ignore anyone who says this. They are either completely ignorant of political economy or a liar. Most are probably both: ignorant of socialism’s meaning and deliberately using the word to appeal to other people’s ignorant but pejorative views about it. There may be a global outbreak of Keynesian-style capitalism but that’s nothing remotely like socialism.

Sixth myth: at least with coronavirus the politicians are listening to the scientistsi.e. unlike climate change. The pollies might be listening now – and even now it took a while for many to accept the facts and act – but they haven’t been listening for the last twenty years. They’ve been ignoring the scientific evidence about the inevitability of a pandemic of a flu-like illness. They have steadfastly refused to stop creating the conditions that create novel infections. They have refused to prepare for its inevitable occurrence, just as they have for climate change. They listen when it suits them. This leads me to …

… the seventh myth, the biggest and most consequential myth: coronavirus was completely unexpected, no one could have predicted it. On the contrary, this is not a ‘black swan event’, as the Eurocentric jargon likes to label completely unpredictable events. We have known for at least two decades that a pandemic of an influenza-like illness, possibly due to an infectious agent that is new to humanity, possibly due to a ‘old friend’, was inevitable. No one could predict exactly when it would occur, or where it would start, or what the infectious agent would be but we knew enough about the changes that humans were making to ecosystems and the properties of viruses to know that something like COVID-19 was going to start sometime somewhere and that worldwide spread would be very difficult to stop.

In Part 2 ,I examine the negligent failure over the last twenty years of governments and corporations to fulfil their risk management responsibilities to prevent and prepare for a viral pandemic. I highlight the need for a new breed of public and private sector executives for the 21st century.

Peter Sainsbury is a retired public health worker, lapsed sociologist and lifelong socialist.

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