Swine flu outbreak raises wider questions

The death of a 23-month-old toddler in Texas yesterday was the first U.S. death in the swine flu outbreak that has killed 159 people in Mexico so far. It adds to the mounting worry here and abroad about the spread of this potentially deadly virus. It also raises many questions about the sustainability of food production on the corporate model.

But predictably, the ultra-right in the U.S. is trying to hijack the issue for its racist and anti-immigrant agenda.

The first appearance of the new virus strain, with genetic elements from human, swine and avian flu varieties, was reportedly in a 5-year-old boy in the village of La Gloria near the town of Perote, in Veracruz state, Mexico, in March. Public health officials say that although many people in La Gloria at that time were suffering from flu-like symptoms, only the 5-year-old child had the new swine flu variety, among those tested.

Outsiders tend to associate Veracruz state with lush vegetation, lively harp music and steamy beaches. But the Perote area is actually inland, up on the high central plateau, and is cool and dry. Many area residents make a very long commute to Mexico City to work. So if the current outbreak started in La Gloria, it could have quickly spread to Mexico City.

The dry climate creates a problem of windblown dust, which is also a big problem in Mexico City, much of which sits on an old lakebed. This is hard on respiratory systems, weakening their defenses against infection. But it also creates a danger of viral infections when dried fecal matter mixes with the dust and is inhaled (A few years ago there were a number of deaths in the Southwestern U.S. from hantavirus, spread via dried wild rodent feces).

Smithfield, hogs and health

La Gloria is next to a major pig raising and pork production operation, consisting of 16 farms run by Granjas Carroll (Carroll Farms), which is half owned by the giant Smithfield agribusiness corporation based in Virginia. For some time, residents of the area have been protesting what they say are unsanitary conditions caused by the way that Granjas Carroll keeps its pigs and disposes of pig fecal waste. Not only are there unbearable smells, residents say, but the vast amounts of pig excrement in open, inadequately lined pits have created massive swarms of flies which bedevil the inhabitants, who blame them for health problems.

For its part, Smithfield/Granjas Carroll denies any relationship between the flu outbreak and its operations, and claims that it keeps its pigs healthy and vaccinated and follows proper rules for waste disposal. It has also sued five leaders of local protests for defamation. But the people of La Gloria are not convinced.

Many people in the U.S. can relate to the complaints about the way pork is produced, and about Smithfield specifically. In Virginia and North Carolina, where Smithfield has had major operations, and in other areas of the country where other corporations have large pig farms, complaints about odor and public health dangers have arisen time and again. In 1997, Smithfield was fined $12.6 million for water pollution caused by its methods of disposing of pig waste. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit Eastern North Carolina, causing massive overflows of ponds owned by Smithfield subcontractors, flushing vast amounts of dangerous waste into the waterways and killing millions of fish.

These complaints by local residents and environmentalists coincide with serious labor troubles in pork production operations, for example at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, N.C., where Smithfield pulled out all stops to prevent workers from being organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. In addition, animal rights activists denounce the brutal way in which pigs are kept practically immobile in company pens.

Industrial animal factories

Smithfield says it has cleaned up the problems, but there is a larger issue, namely the danger created by modern methods of raising pigs, chickens, turkeys and other animals for mass consumption. When you have such large animal populations crammed into relatively small spaces (with the resultant stress weakening their resistance to infection), it creates a danger of incubating viruses on a vast scale. That in turn increases the possibility of mutations dangerous to humans — the more the virus breeds and spreads, the higher the probability of mutations.

We have seen this before.

The 1919 flu epidemic which killed 50 million people probably started in poultry. The SARS scare of 2003 may have had its origin among masked palm civets, wild carnivores that are eaten in China and were being kept in large numbers in unsanitary conditions in food markets. The bird flu or avian flu virus, H5N1, is a source of serious worry to public health officials worldwide, because of its potential for mutating in domestic poultry populations and then jumping into the human population. Massive research and bird vaccination efforts have been mounted all over the world to stave off this potential disaster.

Inadequate public health systems

Another issue that the current outbreak raises is the inadequacy of public health systems in poorer countries.

In Mexico, there are already criticisms of the speed with which the government responded. Evidently the Mexican ministry of health had to send its samples to a Canadian laboratory for analysis, which took an extra week. It boggles the mind to think of what epidemics could come out of countries that have even more ramshackle public health systems and even worse living conditions.

But we in the United States are in no position to gloat.

The Centers for Disease Control did not realize the danger until six days after Mexico began to take emergency measures. If an outbreak on the scale of the one in Mexico happens here, how will we cope? Millions of people in the United States have no health insurance and are likely to delay seeking health care when they feel sick, simply because even a short stay in the hospital may mean financial ruin.

And if everybody who got sick in such an epidemic were to seek medical attention, would there be enough doctors, nurses, clinics, hospitals and medications to go around? Moreover, Republicans in Congress demanded and got the removal of $900 million for preventing epidemics from the recently passed stimulus package, considering it a sort of “pork” (ahem!). Many Democrats went along.

Right-wing diatribes

The foaming-at-the-mouth crowed on cable TV and talk radio immediately launched into massive diatribes against Mexico and Mexican people. Some of these comments have been gathered on the useful web site of “Media Matters for America,' .

Right-wing columnist Michelle Malkin, for instance, was quick to blame the relatively small number of cases reported in the U.S. so far on “illegal immigration,” in spite of the fact that the cases in New York, which are most numerous so far, were found to have started with private school students returning from spring break in Cancun. Others called for a complete cutoff of immigration and trade with Mexico.

Commenters on Internet articles on the flu outbreak have taken up the call, calling Mexicans cockroaches that should be exterminated by atomic bombs and even rejoicing at the deaths as being so many fewer “illegal aliens” who can now try to sneak into the United States and get on welfare. This increases the danger that psychologically unbalanced people will commit acts of violence against Latino people here.

Solutions

The solution lies in a global program for sustainable and safe food production that avoids the brutal corporate model, plus the building up of public health resources worldwide and especially in the developing countries.

Every country should have up-to-date facilities for detecting and stopping pathogens the moment they appear, a capacity now blocked by the extremes of wealth and poverty among the world’s nations. This is in the interest of the people of the U.S. and other developed countries, as the present alarm clearly shows.

However, it will be fought tooth and nail by the corporate monopolies in food production, pharmaceuticals, etc., and their political flunkies.