Saturday, March 21, 2020

Reply to The coronavirus, bats, and deforestation (2020)

From the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog

The main argument in the posted article seems to be that the untapped 'natural world' is a vast reserve of unknown diseases which capitalism risks unleashing on a defenceless global population. I don't think this is the best argument against deforestation, but even in its own terms this view is problematical.

There are lots of exotic and isolated diseases with no cures, but they are already known about, and the reason they have no cures is only because almost hardly anybody catches them and therefore no R&D money has been put into them. Until fairly recently, Ebola was one of these. The degree to which these (capitalist) priorities would be changed in socialism is at best moot. It's not a question of money, it's a question of effort spent versus benefits gained.

Historically most new diseases have not come from the 'natural world' but from the activities of established human society, specifically animal domestication. Diseases that have jumped to us from domestic animals include:
Poultry 26, Rats / Mice  32, Horses 35, Dog 65, Pig 42, Sheep / Goats 46, Cattle 50
Note the absence of cats from this list. This illustrates the fact that diseases only proliferate in social animals, which are usually non-predators.

When the Spanish colonised the Americas they introduced all the childhood diseases of the Old World to a virgin population, where they instantly became killer diseases. I don't know of a single killer disease being transferred in the other direction, from the new to the old (syphilis was suggested however I believe instances of this are recorded in Europe before the colonisation of the Americas).

For an introduction to the fascinating and counter-intuitive world of epidemiology I would recommend Plagues and Peoples, William H. McNeill (Anchor Press/Doubleday 1976). This takes as a starting point the notion that 'everything is a parasite', and for socialists presents a particularly interesting comparison of micro- (ie. germs) and macro-(ie. ruling class) parasitism and their effects on historical societies. For a less in-depth treatment of the subject you could try Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel (W.W.Norton, 1997).

An isolated, exotic disease has little chance to spread, and therefore no chance to mutate. In fact the more deadly it is, the worse its chances of spreading. In the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the virus had to be given a lot of help to spread via human activities (big funerals), and yet the epidemic had already tailed off by the time a vaccine was ready, so much so that medics had trouble finding enough live cases to test their vaccines on. This in turn meant drug companies lost a lot of money, which is also why they have been reluctant to come forward to sink money into coronavirus research.

Garden-variety viruses like Covid-19 spread and mutate constantly, and they are already better adapted, meaning that it takes fewer key mutations to make the species jump. This means they are much more dangerous to us than some new unknown disease from the uncharted wilds. Unlike most 'stupid' viruses, Covid-19 has pulled a blinder. It knows how to fool our immune system so it can operate under the radar, it blocks warning messages from infected cells to other cells, and it spell-checks its own RNA (only DNA normally does this) to prevent potential attacks on its data integrity (New Scientist, 21 March). The odds against an unknown, non-human-adapted disease being able to do all this purely by accident are astronomical, I would think.

Not that any of this justifies plundering the carbon sinks of the rainforests. But I think the argument of killer diseases is very weak compared to the argument of diversity, for example. We stand to get a lot more benefit (eg. new drugs) from the jungle, than toxic epidemics.

What is the socialist take-home (and stay-home) message from this? That it's all capitalism's fault would be an absurd simplification. It's not immediately obvious to me how socialism would have been any better prepared. The WHO warned of such an epidemic in 2003 but nobody can develop a vaccine before the new virus has even appeared. One coronavirus is not like another. A single mutation can make all the difference in the world. 

A more realistic argument we could explore is that socialist society would be better equipped to deal with such a crisis once it had arisen, partly because it wouldn't need to worry about a global economic crash, or unpaid wages, rents, mortgages or taxes, and partly because it's geared to cooperation in the first place, as opposed to cooperation as a last resort.
Paddy Shannon


Howard said...

Interesting and last comment is the telling one.

Stephen Shenfield said...

This response and my counter-response have been added to the original post on