In “The Origins of COVID-19: China and Global Capitalism,Li Zhang, visiting assistant professor of global and international studies at the University of California at Irvine, pushes back nationalist struggles over the origins of COVID-19. Beyond “narrow cultural, political or biomedical frameworks,” Zhang instead focuses on the global global forces that underpin modern life – capitalism, consumerism, privatization and industrialization – and have contributed to the emergence of COVID-19. .
“The characteristics of modernity and economic development in China, celebrated as the instruments used by the state to successfully control the epidemic, are at the root of this disease and other emerging diseases with pandemic potential,” writes – it in the prelude of the book, a theme that is repeated throughout the short but incisive text. And these characteristics of modernity are not exclusive to China. By focusing on the global systems that underpin modern life – and allow diseases with pandemic potential to spread – Zhang does not get bogged down in the geopolitical blame game that has so distracted the world.
In the following interview with Catherine Putz, editor-in-chief of The Diplomat, Zhang discusses the pandemic, the state’s responses to it, and the role of capitalism in preparing the ground for its rapid spread.
Much of the conversation about the origins of COVID-19 has been hijacked by the politics of Sino-U.S. Tensions. How does this obscure more difficult conversations about the structural conditions that allow the emergence and wide spread of viruses and deadly diseases like COVID-19?
New viruses are emerging all over the world, and the factors behind these emerging infectious diseases are the same everywhere: environmental degradation and loss of natural habitat for wildlife; human encroachment in remote areas for mining, infrastructure construction, tourism and even research; the intensification of animal production which crowds animals into factory farms where diseases spread like a forest fire; growing consumerism for exotic wildlife; etc.
These are complex problems, and tackling them requires critical reflection on the most basic characteristics of modernization, such as the relentless trend towards urbanization, the priority of industrialization over agroecology in food production, and even the pursuit of the profits and consumerism that define capitalism.
Stories that oversimplify this complexity and blame a single country are heartwarming to many, making it seem like the problem is only “out there”, and so there would be no need for us. to consider our role and our responsibility “here”. This is especially handy for those whose power and profits would be strained by the drastic reforms that would be needed to actually reduce the risk of new infectious diseases emerging in the first place. One of the main points of my book is to shift the debate away from this “US versus China” narrative to reveal the global dimensions of the problem we face.
When COVID-19 first emerged in China, the initial response was moderate. What has been the turning point in the Chinese state’s response to the pandemic? How was China’s initial response slowed down by the characteristics of state governance and Chinese capitalism?
The turning point in China’s response to the emerging epidemic came around January 20, when human-to-human transmission was confirmed and the central government took charge.
The idea that this response was “slow” needs to be put into context, as a comparison with other government responses shows that the Chinese government was in fact relatively quick and, perhaps even more important, , energetic and efficient in its response. On the other hand, large countries like the United States have had considerably slower, weaker, and less effective responses.
Why have governments around the world been reluctant to implement strong and effective public health responses quickly? It was clearly the fear of negative economic consequences, the loss of profits for the capitalist elites and both consumerism and jobs for the working masses. In a capitalist global economy, governments must weigh the economic costs and benefits of public health measures.
In turn, the fastest and most effective public health responses emerge where the state has the power and capacity to confront capitalist elites, provide social services, and support the livelihoods of the masses without. depend on capitalist enterprises. For China’s initial response to be even faster and more efficient, its economy and society would need to be even more independent from global capitalism, ensuring the well-being of its people without depending on the profits of capitalist enterprises.
In the book, you draw a connecting line between the SARS outbreak in 2003, the growing development and privatization of health care in China, and the emergence of COVID-19. To this mix, you add the commodification and commercialization of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the commercial interests of the biomedical field. Can you explain how these developments fit together to pave the way for the emergence of a new disease?
With the development of global capitalism, healthcare has become increasingly privatized and profit-oriented around the world, at the same time shifting the priorities of biomedical research. Thus, there is more profit to be made by seeking cures for infectious diseases than by preventing their occurrence in the first place. This is not only the case with PCR tests and medical equipment, but also pharmaceutical drugs, including TCM.
There is a big contradiction in that TCM needs to be geared towards prevention and cost reduction, but TCM in general has become more and more commercial, with TCM pharmaceuticals being the most increasing component. quickly. And as food security and environmental crises increase chronic diseases like diabetes, more people are turning to TCM, including those made from wild animals like civets (which transmitted SARS from bald people). -mice to humans), pangolins, bamboo rats and other wildlife that may be associated with the outflow of this and other new viruses.
In what ways is China’s rapid recovery and response from the initial outbreak strengthening the underlying factors causing COVID-19?
Expansion of infrastructure such as roads, railways, airports, dams and power lines in remote areas contributes to the loss of natural habitat for wildlife. The increase in mining and tourism is bringing people closer to the wildlife which is forced to settle in smaller and smaller patches of its habitat, such as bats in caves or wells. mine.
The industrialization of agriculture and animal husbandry degrades the environment and creates the ideal conditions for new diseases to spread among animals concentrated in factory farms, and from there to spread to humans. Neither China nor any other major country in the world has placed these structural conditions that give rise to pandemic disease at the center of the public debate on the response and recovery from COVID-19.
As the world’s second-largest economy and the only major country to have effectively contained the epidemic domestically, China has restarted economic activities much faster and more efficiently than anywhere else, and has even boosted its economy with more exports of oil. ‘medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and vaccines. This places China at the heart of a global process of capitalist development that is giving birth to new infectious diseases with pandemic potential.
It can easily be assumed these days that pandemics are inevitable, so we need to focus on how to respond effectively. But is it true? Are there neglected areas that we can address to reduce the risk of the emergence of future diseases with pandemic potential?
The existence of viruses and the fact that some may jump from species to infect humans is indeed inevitable. But the speed at which new infectious diseases are emerging and the potential for local epidemics to become global pandemics is another matter.
There has been a dramatic increase in new infectious diseases over the past few decades, and epidemics that would have simply caused local epidemics are now much more likely to become global pandemics. This is due to the radical intensification of capitalism and consumerism around the world, in particular the sacrifice of entire ecosystems in search of profit and consumer goods, and the adoption of industrial modes of production (especially in the livestock and food management) which seem to be more “biosecure” because they are perceived as modern, even if they actually accelerate virus mutations and their spread, unlike more decentralized and intensive production systems. workforce.
More and more pandemics only seem inevitable because so many people are unable or unwilling to think beyond capitalism and consumerism, and reimagine modernity away from the urban concentration and industrialization of it all. To reduce the risk of future pandemics, more than just biomedical improvements in surveillance are needed; it requires confronting the power and profits of capitalist elites and consumerist masses around the world.