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Profitting From Pandemics


The swine flu pandemic can be plenty good for business. In his article, “A Capitalist Pig’s View of Swine Flu,” investor Brian Orelli said that “there is nothing wrong with drug companies and investors making money” from the crisis. “If we do reach pandemic stage,” he said on April 27th, “the big winners would be companies developing ways to quickly produce vaccines.” Possible winners were “both Baxter and Novavax [who] are developing vaccines that are produced in cell culture and therefore can produce a vaccine in 12 weeks (Orelli 2009).”

It’s now coming up on September and we are in the early stages of a full blown swine flu pandemic. Last week the World Health Organization warned the globe to pr epare for a second wave of outbreaks. As of August 23rd the WHO confirms 209,438 infections in over 170 countries with 2,185 deaths. This greatly underestimates the actual number of cases. In fact the chances may be as high as 1 in 3 that you will get infected. That’s what WHO chief Keiji Fukuda suggested at a press conference on May 7th.

If you had taken Orelli’s advice you would have done very well. On April 27, Novavax was selling at $2.55 a share. As of August 30th it is up to $5.89. Its stock price has nearly tripled this year.

In reality Big Pharma gets rich coming or going. They already make millions supplying antibiotics (like penicillin, tetracycline and erythromycin) for corporate meat production in “normal” times, including industrial hog farms like Smithfield (where the current H1N1 strain is suspected to have developed in North Carolina in 1998). In so doing they actually helped to create the swine flu pandemic by making it possible for millions of hogs to live in hellish conditions where they trade germs relentlessly.

From an anthropological view – not a capitalist’s view – there is a deeper and disturbing reality to the pandemic as of yet poorly unaddressed.

Pigs for the Ancestors

Like the stock market, pigs can be a barometer for how things are going in the larger culture. In Roy Rappaport’s classic 1968 ethnography, Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People, for example, Rappaport argues that warfare among the Tsembaga Maring tribe was actually regulated by a ritual pig feast that came along every decade or so.

Here’s how it worked. When the pig herd – which ran wild in the village – increased to a big enough size where it was uprooting yams and sweet potatoes in tribal gardens, quarrels would ensue. Eventually the Tsembaga reached a consensus to hold a kaiko, a festival that culminated in a magnificent pig feast in which most of the pigs would be sacrificed. . .and eaten (Townsend 2008). The feast was dedicated to tribal spirits and ancestors who, in turn, would assist the Tsembaga in their challenges ahead. The ritual gatherings were a time when tribal members would also make important decisions about crop needs, labor needs and other problems. Befitting a feast, sexual unions were formed and social bonds strengthened. Importantly, Rappaport argued that warfare followed the feast. In other words war was regulated by the feast=2 0– no fighting until the kaiko is done. He said the timing of the ritual cycle “is itself a function of the speed of growth of the pig population (Rappaport 1970:76).”

Rappaport’s perspective had theoretical faults, but he conveyed a very important message: there was an invisible linkage between ritual, environmental management, and war.

Should we view the current pandemic as a ritual occasion, like that of the Tsembega’s pig ritual? Think about it. The explosive “Livestock Revolution” over the past thirty years has greatly enhanced the speed of growth of the hog population while exponentially facilitating the speed of growth of infectious disease. Can the hog hells called CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) – and the associated pork BBQ feasts to which many of us have become accustomed – be seen as part of a ritual cycle in which pandemic upon future pandemic is predictable? And are these resulting=2 0pandemics – like Tsembaga warfare – attributable, then, to the sickening motions of capitalism?


From an anthropological perspective, one might say that in New Guinea, pigs are sacrificed for humans while under corporate capitalism, humans get sacrificed for the, er, pigs.

Capitalist Medicine

You might have been denied an antibiotic at your last doctor’s visit, but your chances would have improved had you been a pig.

Seventy percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. do not go to humans but to healthy livestock, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The practice of injecting huge quantities of hogs with antibiotics seems to be having the consequence of nurturing a host of antibiotic resistance related diseases like MRSA. Unlike antibiotics, the pharmaceutical industry typically does not get much involved in vaccines because there is so little money in it. During the 1976 swine flu epidemic they would not produce vaccines unless the federal government assumed the risk for bad vaccine outcomes – a form of socialized medicine for capital.

In Michigan government flu seminars I attended two years ago, I was informed that officials expect at least 70,000 to die from the next pandemic20flu when it eventually hits the state. The chief mode of medical action? Besides antivirals and vaccinations it’s a hefty dose of “social distancing.” In other words, close the factories, close the schools, stop taking busses and just stay away from people. The poor and working class will have the most difficulty doing this as anthropologist Paul Farmer eloquently makes clear in his “Infections and Inequalities (1999).” The Third World will suffer immeasurably, lacking easy access to antivirals and vaccinations.

No one has ever suggested at these Michigan meetings that we should close the CAFOs right then. Few are doing so now. But it is essential medicine.

A Prolonged Ritual Performance

The media is spotlighting changes in traditional church rituals brought on by the swine flu. In the Catholic Church communion rituals will change (no more drinking out of the same wine cup), and for many there will be no more Kiss of Peace.

But the media miss the deeper and more profound aspects of ritual to which we are all obligated to partake in a biopolitics of fear. These are the rituals of school closings, vaccine shots, surgical masks, social distancing, clinic visits, quarantines and funerals. Then there are the rituals of blame. Death certificates will list pneumonia, heart failure or H1N1 as the causes of death . . . the surface causes. But none will say, “Cause of Death: capitalist engendered pandemic.” In this manner, amnesia is institutionally built into the culture.

And then there is the social amnesia embodied in the ritual of forgetting. America has already had a swine-vectored pandemic, or two. There=2 0is increasing evidence that the 1918 Spanish flu had swine elements. But it is the other pandemic, an invisible one, and also a Spanish one that deserves full review.

Spanish Conquistador Hernando de Soto (1469-1542), introduced pigs to North America when he laid waste to native peoples in a pillaging march through what is present day Alabama and Georgia. Those pigs likely carried flu and a number of other European diseases to which the natives were unprotected. It was likely a massive pig-vectored epidemic that killed tens of thousands, perhaps millions of Indians before the French and British ever laid eyes on inland sights like Cahokia, the largest (abandoned) Indian city North of Mexico. In other words, the great swath of alleged emptiness that served as justification for American manifest destiny, was actually a consequence of European contact! This ocean of suffering peoples is mostly forgotten in what was a virtual bubonic plague in America.

Will links be made to these earlier American hog pandemics and lessons learned? Will a countermovement of ritual protest take shape? Like the AIDS Quilt project, the names of swine flu victims need to be placed on a quilt and paraded down Wall Street, over at Smithfield Farms and at your local CAFO.

But what is the best course of pig policy?

Environmental Anthropology: From Pigs to Policy

In 2009 anthropologist Patricia Townsend seemed to suggest an answer in her book Environmental Anthropology: From Pigs to Policy. Her title referenced Roy Rappaport, but surprisingly no where did she discuss current pig policy![1] Missing were two leading anthropological critics of agribusiness and swine: Don Stull and Kendall Thu.

Stull, a former President of the Society for Applied Anthropology (2005-07), has studied the meatpacking industry for decades. His ethnography “Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America” (co-written with Michael Broadway) is a magnificent contribution to the growing work on U.S. agribusiness. His work details anthropological advocacy, community action and policy formation.

Thu, the author of Pigs, Profits and Rural Communities (1998) is currently the editor of Culture and Agriculture. In a recent interview he was asked “Why has America accepted the industrial approach to farming?” He said simply, “It is a consequence of unfettered capitalism and greed.”

CAFOs seem to be not that much different to feudalism and sharecropping the interviewer noted. Thu responded with a deft punchline. “The only difference is that European feudalism . . . .led to immigration to this country. There‘s no place for farmers to go now unless we ship them to another planet. They can go to urban areas and find jobs, but there is no escape now (Comey 2007).”

Is there an escape from corporate capitalism? Are the real issues being addressed in the current crisis?

Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”: Socialism Cut from Text, Mostly

Over a century ago investigative journalist Upton Sinclair exposed the cruelties of the livestock industry in his magnum opus “The Jungle,” which detailed how the owners “took everything but the squeal.” It wasn’t merely investigative journalism. Don Stull describes Sinclair as “conducting what anthropologists would today call participant observation among packinghouse workers and their families (Stull and Broadway 2004:66).” Sinclair wanted to spur a socialist revolution, instead he got the FDA. Rather than focus on worker exploitation, the powers that be – including Teddy Roosevelt – focused instead on making pigs safe to eat. Sinclair was pressured by the publisher to cut large heaps of socialist rhetoric from the book.

Sinclair’s writing about pigs and socialism is still very relevant. “So long as we have wage slavery. . .it matters not in the least how debasing and repulsive a task may be, it is easy to find people to perform it. . .but as soon as labor is set free . . .then the price of such work will begin to rise. . . .the old, dingy, and unsanitary factories will co me down. . .until eventually those who want to eat meat will have to do their own killing (Sinclair 1906:410)”. Until then, “preventable diseases [will] kill off half our population (Sinclair 1906:410)”

How much has truly changed since Sinclair penned these words?

The book that comes closest to Sinclair in discussing the coming flu pandemic was written by Mike Davis and is called “The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu (2005).” He eloquently covers the avian flu threat of four years ago but most of what Davis says is pertinent to the current crisis.

Another Kind of Pig Feast

If this pandemic goes really bad, millions will perish. If we dodge a bullet we can all celebrate. But we must be vigilant. Epidemiologists expect a worldwide conflagration anytime in the decades ahead. In the fall as the cold descends and children return to school we will need access to the best available treatment and preventive measures. Third World peoples need them equally. But how do we avert future pandemics in the meantime?

Required is a ritual sacrifice of “capitalist pigs.” Close the CAFOs, build sustainable agriculture and establish an ecological socialist world to prevent future pandemics. There’s much work to do.

Our ancestors – and our children – will be honored by the sacrifice.

BRIAN McKENNA lives in Michigan. He can be reached at:


Clabaugh, Jeff. Novavax rallies on Swine flu breakthrough. Washington Business Journal. August 5.

Comey, Diane, The Future of Hog Confinements: Deeper Look at CAFOs. The Iowa Source, April 2007

Davis, Mike. 2005. The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. New York: The New Press.


Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2006. Engaging Anthropology, The Case for a PublicPresence. Berg Publishers.

McElroy, Ann and Patricia K. Townsend. 2009 Medical Anthropology in Ecological Perspective (fifth edition). Philadelphia:Westview.

Orelli, Brian,

Rappaport, Roy. 1968. Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People. New Haven, CT:Yale University Press.

Sinclair, Upton. 1906. The Jungle. New York:Doubleday.

Stull, Donald and Michael Broadway. 2004. Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America. California:Thompson/Wadsworth.

Townsend, Patricia K. Environmental Anthropology: From Pigs to Policies. 2009. Long Grove, IL:Waveland.

Thu, Kendall and Paul Durrenberger, eds., Pigs, Profits and Rural Communities 1998 SUNY Press.

NOTE: [1] To be fair to Patricia Townsend above, she does a good job of describing agribusiness and meat in her classic work Medical Anthropology in Ecological Perspective (now 5th edition, 2009). This coming academic year I shall order this book for my Environmental Anthropology course.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Society for Applied Anthropology Newsletter, August 2009, Tim Wallace, editor.
See it at:






Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at

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