Neoliberalism and the Coronavirus

Photograph Source: Studio Incendo – CC BY 2.0

In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein notes that the TV sets owned by Americans were manufactured in China with the energy input from coal-burning. Those carbon emissions are logged in China’s ledger. The trucking to bring the TV to your town’s big box outlet is logged in the U.S.’s ledger. However, the transoceanic shipping that brought the set from Shenzhen to Los Angeles is not logged under any country’s ledger.

Americans may point fingers at China for burning coal, but who is watching that TV? Not the migrant worker who mined that coal. Not the laborer in the Congo who mined the rare earth elements for the electronics. Not the steelworker in the foundry in Wuhan. Not the factory worker who sorted transistors into sockets. Not the Filipino merchant seaman on the cargo ship. Not the Sikh driver of the 18-wheeler. Not the grandma who greets you at the entrance of the big box outlet. Not the Chinese worker whose cough from the air pollution keeps him up at night. Now, what’s this? A fever, too?

We mention ledgers because capitalism is all about externalizing costs. “Some people” (because corporations are legally people) don’t take responsibility for their carbon footprint. “Some people” scrape the surface off the earth to get at “their” lithium. Some polluters don’t take responsibility for the health costs of their effluent. The shorthand definition of neoliberalism is capitalism on steroids. No longer does capital have to exploit workers in its own country. It can scour the world for the cheapest, most exploitable labor. Just pay them shit, since they live in shithole countries anyway. No longer does capital have to fret about environmental regulations in its own country. Just manufacture those goods someplace where the government says air that you can’t see through, or water that is green from algae is A-OK. Those goods end up a continent away, but as long as the shipping costs are cheap (burn, baby, burn), it makes more profit than employing local people for what they think is a livable wage.

Klein notes that in the decades since the 1997 Kyoto protocol, global carbon emissions have continued to grow. Rather, with free market globalization, reflective of the dominant neoliberal ideology and enacted through investor rights agreements – the basis of the world economy has become predicated on greater and greater fossil fuel combustion as capital seeks less expensive labor, goods are shipped in ever increasing volume between continents, and the cost of environmental destruction is externalized.

Paul Krugman notes that over a quarter of the manufacturing in the world takes place in China. China is the workshop of the world. That means coal-burning air pollution and lots of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer at a young age for the Chinese. As China continues to burn coal for energy, millions more of its citizens will die prematurely of respiratory diseases. An estimated 366,000 deaths were attributed to coal-burning in 2013.

In sum, the strategy of wringing every last dollar out of child, prison, and slave labor for the sake of private profit is nearing the point of diminishing returns. Unleashing a fatal virus from bats into humans is a negative return. By wrecking the neoliberal-driven global economy, 2019-nCoV may just push the world into embodying that final section of the post-climate catastrophe, post-Ebola, post-rat fever world of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. The question is, do you find the final section pessimistic or optimistic?

Much has been made of how the novel coronavirus made the host species jump from its probable natural reservoir in bats to humans. The clustering of many of the early cases among workers at a market that sold wildlife for food is indicative. The cross-species jump is indicative of the further encroachment of humans on the remaining pockets of nature.

Wuhan, generally cited to have 11 million residents, served as a large population in which the virus could transmit before breaking out for the rest of China. Many of its large contingent of migrant workers and students left for their home towns before the Lunar New Year holiday (scheduled for Jan. 24-30). The mayor of Wuhan, presumably referring to the larger metropolitan area, noted that 5 million had left Wuhan prior to the imposition of quarantine on Jan 23, leaving a population of 9 million. While China is known to closely surveil its individual citizens, many migrant workers who are registered in their home provinces cannot be tracked so closely.

Since it infects the respiratory tract, the novel coronavirus is presumably spread by droplet – coughing, sneezing. Most viral respiratory infections are also spread by personal contact: shaking hands with an infected person, then touching your face. Is it spread by fomites (touching a surface touched by an infected person)? We don’t know yet.

The definitive work on The Origins of AIDS (2012), by Jacques Pepin, draws upon viral genomics, primatology, tropical medicine, and the history of colonialism and postcolonialism. Pepin carefully reconstructs how a zoonotic virus entered the human population and how it was amplified into a global pandemic by large-scale social and political economic forces. He outlines how human behavior abetted the evolutionary success of HIV, defined (from the perspective of the virus) as spreading to an increasingly larger number of hosts. HIV is not very contagious. It can only be transmitted through sexual contact and sharing of blood (injection drug use, transfusions). Its initial symptoms are minor, however, and the long period in which it lies dormant (on the order of a decade) before manifesting as opportunistic infections or cancers, allows it to be unknowingly transmitted to others. By incorporating itself into the genome of human cells and mutating constantly, HIV makes itself difficult to cure.

The novel coronavirus that appeared in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China in late 2019 has a different strategy to infect a large number of hosts. Firstly, it is pretty contagious. Early studies from China indicate that each infected individual is infecting more than two other people. The virus likes crowded places, like China. Thus far, it appears to be less deadly than its coronavirus cousins, SARS-CoV (which caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) with 23% mortality, or MERS-CoV (which causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) with 10% mortality. So far, the novel coronavirus appears to have approximately a 2% mortality, though this rate will likely be lowered as more patients with minimal or perhaps no symptoms are identified. From the virus’s perspective, it doesn’t help your cause if you’re too deadly – because you then kill your host before your person gives the virus the virus to another person. A 2% mortality rate is quite worrisome, though. Most influenza pandemics have a mortality rate of <0.1%. The Great Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, which had an estimated mortality rate of < 2.5%, killed 50-100 million worldwide.

So, we now have new virus exploiting the vulnerabilities that humans set up for themselves by buying into the neoliberal program. Viruses are barely even a life form. They don’t thrive or propagate unless they take over the cells of their hosts. Who invited them to infect us humans anyway? “Those people” that eat weird food like bats? Wait, who invited those strange people anyway? Those slant-eyes, those carriers of the virus? Wait until we get white supremacy bound up with keeping out them foreigners. Wait, they’re there already.

But if we think about it – I’m afraid that slant-eye or round-eye, short- or long-nose, light- or dark-skin, it’s us watching that TV.

Seiji Yamada, a native of Hiroshima, is a family physician practicing and teaching in Hawaii.