Our nativist freakout about China hides the real origin of the coronavirus

We’re facing something that’s more difficult than a medical emergency. We’re facing a political fight against the most powerful corporations in the world.

By Yasha Levine

This was originally published at Immigrants as a Weapon. Subscribe to Yasha Levine’s newsletter here.

Since the coronavirus started making news here in America, it’s been portrayed as a foreign pathogen. It’s not just Donald Trump and his the MAGA fan club. Starting with the Chinese bat soup meme, all kinds of nativist political theories and racist conspiracies have been oozing out of centrist, rightist, and progressive media and political circles — making it seem like the virus is primarily a foreign problem and quite possibly a foreign conspiracy against the United States.

Just check out this crazy viral xenophobic theorizing that ties the disruption caused by corona closures to Russia and Putin. It’s pushed by a respected liberal academic — someone who regularly gets space in the New York Times. Americans love their insane nativist conspiracies about foreign plots by shady asiatics. Don’t deny them this basic right!

This stuff is infectious and has already led to sporadic violence against Chinese-Americans and people from Asia in America. But this nativist blaming isn’t just happening here.

China’s been trying to pin the virus on the American government, and so has Russia. A few weeks back, Russian state news broadcast a segment that tied the virus to an American plot against China. Channelling Brass Eye, the host of the news program laid out his logic like this: China is America’s greatest enemy. “Corona” means “crown.” And Donald Trump “crowned” the winners of his Miss Universe pageant. It all added up. Trump unleashed a bioweapon. The clue is in the etymology!

And really, who knows? Maybe the virus is some shadowy American warfare program that backfired. It wouldn’t the first. See: lyme disease.

“Take the word ‘crown.’ What did Donald Trump, the president America, the main rival of China, do in his previous life? That’s right! He handed out crowns at his famous beauty contest.” — Kirill Kleimyonov, Channel 1

I’m sure that xenophobic panics have always followed pandemics and outbreaks of disease, going back to origins of human history. It’s a natural response when faced with a mysterious, deadly calamity. You blame the out-group — a different ethnic or religious or minority group. You blame whoever your official enemy is, or whoever it is most politically useful to blame. It happened during the “Spanish” Flu that decimated humanity a century ago. (Later it was determined that the “Spanish” Flu was actually made in America.) And it hasn’t changed today — in our age of supposed rationality.

And what’s politically useful today about blaming the coronavirus on a specific country? It helps obscure the real origin of the pathogen — which is not national, but international. It’s economic and political.

There’s a great academic by the name of Rob Wallace who has been doing amazing, pioneering work on this issue — looking at how our neoliberal globalized industrial economy pumps out deadly pathogens with increasing frequency.

Rob’s work shows that the real driver of corona isn’t China — it’s our oligarchic, hyper-industrial mode of food production. This monopolized, vertically integrated system was perfected here in America and then exported to every corner of the world. It paves over everything and prioritizes concentration of wealth and maximum profitability for a tiny elite, while offloading the death and destruction it causes to everyone else.

It has created perfect conditions for producing deadly pathogens. It draws out deadly diseases from deep in the forests and jungles by destroying habitats, builds vertically integrated industrial “meat” farms filled with cloned animals that breed the most virulent pathogens, and then hooks both of these disease factories up to a global supply chain that spreads the stuff around the world and to all of us.

If DARPA wanted to outsource an R&D lab for pandemic production — it couldn’t have come up with a better pathogen machine. Or as Rob said recently, “Agribusiness is so focused on profits that selecting for a virus that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk.”

Everyone is focused on trying to contain corona — and naturally this is the right thing to do. But there is a deeper problem here. This is not a singular event. Diseases like this (and possibly worse) will keep popping up with greater and greater frequency, unless we radically change our hyper-industrialization food production to something that respects the limits of our “natural” world.

This machinery is driven by largest companies in the world: Goldman Sachs, Koch Industries, Cargill, ADM, JBS, DuPont, Monsanto — you can can go down the line. Some names you’ll recognize. Others you wont. But together they might represent the largest concentration of political and economic power in the known universe.

In that sense, we’re facing something that’s even more difficult than a medical emergency. We’re facing a deep, systemic political problem — an issue that butts up against the interests of the most powerful corporations in the world and which goes to the heart of all the problems that we face in our hyper-industrialized, oligarchic consumerist society. Looking at part of this problem is something that Rowan and I are trying to do in with our documentary about the power of California oligarch farmers.

We can’t solve this corona global health emergency without understanding what’s actually causing it. And Rob is a great resource for this.

He’s got a great book — Big Farms Make Big Flu — that lays out exactly how this happens. And Rob’s been giving very informative interviews on the topic over the last few weeks. One of them was with Marx21, a German lefty journal, where he encapsulates the work he’s been doing. I highly recommend it.

I’ll just quote a few parts:

The real danger of each new outbreak is the failure or—better put—the expedient refusal to grasp that each new Covid-19 is no isolated incident. The increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations. Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. At present, few governments, and few scientists, are prepared to do so. Quite the contrary.

When the new outbreaks spring up, governments, the media, and even most of the medical establishment are so focused on each separate emergency that they dismiss the structural causes that are driving multiple marginalized pathogens into sudden global celebrity, one after the other.

Who is to blame?

I said industrial agriculture, but there’s a larger scope to it. Capital is spearheading land grabs into the last of primary forest and smallholder-held farmland worldwide. These investments drive the deforestation and development leading to disease emergence. The functional diversity and complexity these huge tracts of land represent are being streamlined in such a way that previously boxed-in pathogens are spilling over into local livestock and human communities. In short, capital centers, places such as London, New York, and Hong Kong, should be considered our primary disease hotspots.

For which diseases is this the case?

There are no capital-free pathogens at this point. Even the most remote are affected, if distally. Ebola, Zika, the coronaviruses, yellow fever again, a variety of avian influenzas, and African swine fever in hog are among the many pathogens making their way out of the most remote hinterlands into peri-urban loops, regional capitals, and ultimately onto the global travel network. From fruit bats in the Congo to killing Miami sunbathers in a few weeks‘ time.

What is the role of multinational companies in this process?

Planet Earth is largely Planet Farm at this point, in both biomass and land used. Agribusiness is aiming to corner the food market. The near-entirety of the neoliberal project is organized around supporting efforts by companies based in the more advanced industrialised countries to steal the land and resources of weaker countries. As a result, many of those new pathogens previously held in check by long-evolved forest ecologies are being sprung free, threatening the whole world.

The capital-led agriculture that replaces more natural ecologies offers the exact means by which pathogens can evolve the most virulent and infectious phenotypes. You couldn’t design a better system to breed deadly diseases.

How so? 

Growing genetic monocultures of domestic animals removes whatever immune firebreaks may be available to slow down transmission. Larger population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission. Such crowded conditions depress immune response. High throughput, a part of any industrial production, provides a continually renewed supply of susceptibles, the fuel for the evolution of virulence. In other words, agribusiness is so focused on profits that selecting for a virus that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk.

As for our xenophobic panic against the coronavirus? According to Rob, that panic should be directed at ourselves. “Capital centers — London, New York, Hong Kong, etc. — finance deforestation and development in capital peripheries around the world,” Rob wrote to me. “Look up Goldman Sachs buying into Chinese farms post-housing crisis. In a way the absurdity of blaming the U.S. for this isn’t that far off the mark once one reads between the lines of the nationalist sparring.”

Anyway, make sure you check out the rest of Rob’s interview here and read his book while you self-isolate. Take care of yourself!

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