Mexico’s Swine Flue and the Globalization of Disease

Americas MexicoBlog, April 2 9 2009

Mexico’s Swine Flu and the Globalization of Disease

Alfredo Estrella/Agence France-Presse

Mexico has long been considered the laboratory of globalization. Now a potentially deadly virus has germinated in that laboratory, finding ideal conditions to move quickly along a path toward global pandemic.

Those conditions include: a rapid transition from small livestock production to industrial meat farms after NAFTA established incentives for foreign investment, the failed decentralization of Mexico’s health system along lines established by multilateral lending banks, lax and non-enforced environmental and health regulations as the Mexican government was forced to downsize, the increased flow of goods and persons across borders, and restricted access to life-saving medicines due to NAFTA intellectual property monopolies for pharmaceutical companies.

Mexico under Medical Siege

The swine flu alert in Mexico rose to a level four this week, meaning that it is spreading human-to-human and shows a significant increase in the risk of becoming a pandemic. Schools are closed until at least May 6. The Mexico City government shut down the city’s 35,000 restaurants on Monday. Countries including Canada, Argentina, and several European nations have cancelled flights between Mexico in an effort to contain the spread of the new flu, although Keiji Fukuda of the WHO noted, “closing borders or restricting travel has really little effect in stopping the movement of this virus” now that cases are appearing across the globe.

Here in Mexico City, all public events have been cancelled and people have flocked to the supermarkets in surgical masks to stock up on food. I had to go out yesterday and discovered less traffic (small consolation) but a fairly normal number of people in the streets, many wearing the recommended masks. Traditional practices of greeting each other with kisses and handshakes have been suspended and a cough is seen as tantamount to assault.

But I didn’t feel an atmosphere of panic. Mexicans seem to have accepted the epidemic and changes in their lives with a combination of cultural fatalism and survival instincts although many are skeptical of the government’s claims and the measures taken.

The media has been providing a steady stream of real and generally non-alarmist information out about the risks. The flu is a mutant form of swine flu, human seasonal flu and bird flu. In itself, it is not lethal but it leads to complications of “atypical pneumonia”. It’s atypical because it’s out of season and because victims tend to concentrate in the middle age range. Unlike regular pneumonia that picks off the very young and the very old, deaths of this virus tend to be within the 20-40 range. No-one seems to know exactly why this is. In fact, it is the newness of the virus that has raised the alarm. It can be treated successfully with anti-virals but there is no vaccine for it.

The strategy is to avoid enclosed spaces with large numbers of people. Although people are obeying the measures and following recommendations, increasing doubts exist about the transparency and honesty of government information. A press conference by the Secretaries of Health and Labor on April 29 ended in chaos, with reporters yelling out questions to clear up contradictions between the official version that only 26 cases of swine flu had been confirmed in Mexico and reports of far greater numbers.

Swine Flu and the Smithfield Connection
Because of the population density of Mexico City it continues to be the center of the epidemic. Of the seven deaths from swine flu confirmed by the Mexican government and the WHO, all were in Mexico City—six in the delegation where we live.

However, the first reports came from Perote, Veracruz–home to a huge hog farm co-owned and operated by the U.S. transnational industrial livestock company Smithfield and a Mexican company. In early March, local health officials proclaimed an epidemiological alert due to a flu with the exact same characteristics. La Jornada reported that Perote officials claimed 60% of the population suffered from flu, pneumonia and bronchitis. Federal health officials reportedly ignored the complaints until April 5, when they placed sanitary restrictions on Carroll Farms.
Mexico’s Secretary of Health Jose Angel Cordova discarded the theory that the flu originated in the hog farms of Perote. But the information provided led to more confusion than clarity about that. This needs to be independently and seriously analyzed because the fact remains that the people in Perote show high indices of similar and unexplained illnesses and the government information is partial and inconclusive.

Silvia Ribeiro of the ETC Group told the Americas Program that Mexican officials “act like this is something that fell from the sky, but we’ve known for a long time that industrial livestock operations, especially hogs, are a breeding ground for recombinant viruses. Carroll Farms is just one example, an important one in this case, but it’s also true of industrial chicken farms.”
Anybody who has seen an industrial hog farm knows the risk of disease. The unimaginable concentrations of filth, corrals filled with sick and suffering animals pumped full of antibiotics, and buzzing with flies that then carry disease to the human population create a disease paradise.

As Mike Davis points out,
“The paradox of this swine flu panic is that, while totally unexpected, it was accurately predicted. Six years ago, Science dedicated a major story to evidence that “after years of stability, the North American swine flu virus has jumped onto an evolutionary fast track”.

NAFTA unleashed the spread of industrial livestock farms in Mexico by creating investment incentives for transnational companies to relocate operations there. The “race to the bottom” –where companies move production to areas where environmental and health restrictions and enforcement are low, is exemplified in livestock farming.

Smithfield has had more than its share of legal problems stemming from its operations in the United States. Most recently it announced a decision to reject a $75 million dollar settlement on claims brought in Missouri by residents complaining of the stench. On August 8, 1997 a federal court judge in Virginia imposed a $12.6 million fine on Smithfield Foods for violation of the Clean Water Act. In September of 1999 an appeal upheld the ruling.

In 1994, the year NAFTA went into effect, Smithfield established the Perote operations with the Mexican agrobusiness AMSA (Agroindustrias Unidas de México S.A. de C.V.). In 1999 it bought the U.S. company Carroll’s Foods for $500 million and began rapid expanision of its operations in Perote.

Banking on Disease
Livestock transnationals are not the only economic interests involved in preserving the dangerous situation that led to this epidemic. In an article entitled “An epidemic of profiteering”, she notes that the epidemic means big business for the pharmaceutical companies who hold patents on anti-viral medicines. “Shares in Gilead rose 3%, Roche 4% and Glaxo 6%, and that’s only the beginning.”

Also to blame is neoliberal globalization and its impact on human health. Ribeiro has in interesting theory on why Mexico City is the focal point of the virus. “People living in the city–and in a way the city itself–suffer from a depressed immunological system. Especially for the poor, the lack of public services, water and health services, stress and poor nutrition means that people die not only from increased contagion but also from low defenses here.”

Mexico’s grand experiment in sink or swim neoliberalism included privatization and erosion of health systems and basic services. Mexican health policy expert Gustavo Leal told the CIP Americas Program that “the notorious delay in the response of the federal government can be attributed in part to the decentralization of healthcare promoted by international finance institutions such as the World Bank. “This broke down the chain of command and the flow of information,” Leal said. Tellingly, the health care network that has responded most vigorously to the Mexican swine flu epidemic has been the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS), an institute that conservatives and the same IFIs have been trying to privatize for years. Armies of IMSS healthcare professionals are attending to cases and reporting from the field throughout the country.

SPP: Integrated Risk Management or Integrated Risks?
It’s ironic and inexcusable that the most integrated region in the world responded so poorly to the recent epidemic. One of the main selling points for the extension of NAFTA into the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) was that a working group was preparing integrated response to epidemics that would make all North Americans safer. In fact, this was one of the few publically announced activities of the secretive working groups that primarily devote their activities to making it easier for the Smithfields and Tysons to do business throughout the continent.

The SPP North American Plan declares that it provides a framework to accomplish the following:
* Detect, contain and control an avian influenza outbreak and prevent transmission to humans;
* Prevent or slow the entry of a new strain of human influenza into North America;
* Minimize illness and deaths; and
* Sustain infrastructure and mitigate the impact to the economy and the functioning of society

The Plan supposedly established mechanisms to coordinate actions, monitor outbreaks, and supervise animal farms.

Mexico despite being a poor country with greater risk of disease, had not received the technology needed to immediately analyze flu strains so had to send samples to the Canadian Health Ministry and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta for analysis. About a week was lost in this process. Moreover, as mentioned the CDC didn’t respond quickly or effectively.

Where was this plan when Perote was reporting illness and a local epidemic way back in March? Has this group done serious research on the risks of industrial livestock production? Why did the CDC take nearly a week to respond to reports of the Mexican epidemic?

The answers lie in what Davis refers to as the “global political clout” of the livestock transnationals. Another hint can be found in this phrase from the SPP announcement: “Central to the Plan is a North American approach that undertakes measures to maintain the flow of people, services, and cargo across the borders during a severe pandemic while striving to protect our citizens.”

As is the case with all of NAFTA, the top priority is business as usual. While closing the borders is not the answer, an investigation into the root causes of the epidemic must lead to a full accounting of the risks of globalization and industrial farming. Poor countries with poor health run the greatest risks and yet the current system gives their concerns short shrift and little resources.

A misplaced priority on profits over human health in the context of a globalized world led to this epidemic and its possibilities becoming the world’s latest pandemic.

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2 Responses to “Mexico’s Swine Flue and the Globalization of Disease”

  1. 1 mlyon01 May 1, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Swine Flu: New Instrument to Push Back
    Revolt Against Hated, Fraudulent Regime


    The swine flu that has already killed hundreds of people across Mexico is a threat of unknown magnitude. According to most researchers, is seems far less lethal than the SARS in 2003, but as an influenza the concern is that it may be more durable.

    Most healthcare specialists believe that this porcine virus was conceived in the fecal mire of an industrial pigsty. Many reports suggest that it originated in a pig farm in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. Others point to a Smithfield pig-processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C. (from which the virus was then taken back to Mexico by migrant workers).

    The Mexican authorities knew of the existence of this swine flu as early as mid-February but did nothing about it for two entire months. Government officials have been forced to acknowledge as much. Outrage over the Mexican government’s ineptitude has swept the country. On April 29, the Frente Sindical Mexicano (FSM) held a press conference during which it lambasted the Mexican government for its handling of the entire healthcare crisis.

    While we may never know the exact origin of this virus, there are two things we do know without a shadow of a doubt:

    (1) The rapid spread of this pandemic is directly related to the dismantling of the public healthcare systems in Mexico under NAFTA and to the extreme poverty that plagues this country as a result of the policies of pillage and privatization imposed by the U.S. government and transnational corporations.

    Renowned Mexican actress Ofelia Medina, in a column in La Jornada (April 26), noted that, “in our country, millions of people are ill every day because of malnutrition and extreme poverty, with more than 100 children dying each and every day from otherwise preventable illnesses. Why is there no national emergency for those 40,000 children who die every year? Why is there no national emergency to put an end to malnutrition and preventable diseases?”

    Medina goes on to decry the policies of the PRI and PAN implemented over the past 15 years in the framework of the NAFTA agreement that have led to the gradual dismantling of the ISSSTE (Institute of Social Security for State Workers), the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS), and the Secretaría de Salubridad (now downsized and renamed Secretaría de Salud).

    Yes. Mexico needs to implement a real National Healthcare Emergency Plan to address the growing swine-flu crisis and to address the underlying healthcare crisis that is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year of otherwise preventable illnesses. But this requires repealing all privatization measures that have destroyed the social safety and healthcare systems in Mexico, with the renationalization of the IMSS and ISSSTE.

    It requires that all payments on Mexico’s foreign debt be halted so that all resources available can be put to use developing and distributing the medicines and vaccines needed to treat the population. (El Universal newspaper on April 25 reported that the health ministry has an agreement with a private firm, Birmex, to develop anti-flu vaccines, but the total output under this agreement covers only 5% of total demand in normal times.)

    It also requires halting all privatization measures of Pemex, Mexico’s main source of income. Funds from Pemex are needed to rebuild Mexico’s economy and to finance such a National Healthcare Emergency Plan. These are only some of the measure that would need to be implemented under such a plan.

    2) The current swine-flu crisis is being wielded by the fraudulent administration of Felipe Calderón as an instrument to push back the massive popular revolt against his hated presidency.

    On Saturday, April 25, Calderón issued a decree which with one stroke of the pen eliminates some of the most basic democratic rights guaranteed in Mexico’s Constitution. Henceforth, the federal government “can enter anyone’s home or business in the pursuit of the fight against the epidemic.” The decree, under Point 8, also authorizes the government “to ban all public assemblies or meetings of any sort.”

    Under this decree, for example, all May Day demonstrations across Mexico this year have been banned.

    The press conference by the Frente Sindical Mexicano blasted the government’s manipulation of this epidemic to attack the rights and gains of the Mexican people. “This attack against our Constitutional rights,” stated the FSM, “is despicable and absolutely intolerable for all organizations that represent the urban and rural workers and that need to be able to assemble to defend those very rights.”

    Indeed. The hated administration of Felipe Calderón has tried, by every means available, to roll back the massive wave of resistance that has swept Mexico since 2005, when mass marches of 2 million and 3 million people first took to the streets of Mexico City to protest the refusal by then-President Vicente Fox to allow Andrés Manuel López Obrador to run for president.

    The attempt to keep López Obrador off the 2006 presidential ballot was foiled by this emerging mass movement. Then the regime resorted to unprecedented fraud to prevent López Obrador from taking office, which he had rightfully won in the July 2006 election. Outrage over this fraud swept the country, with the nation’s largest demonstrations ever and the literal occupation of downtown Mexico by hundreds of thousands of protesters for close to six months.

    The regime then resorted to repression against the movement, beginning with the repression of the teachers’ strike in the state of Oaxaca and the repression of the activists of Atenco. But even this repression failed to quash the growing revolt from below.

    More recently, the Mexican government — in close coordination with the U.S. authorities — has made use of the phony war on drug trafficking to go after all dissidents, to militarize the country, to try to atomize the social protest movements, and to create the kind of chaos aimed at getting people off the streets and back into their homes.

    All these measures have been deemed necessary by a tiny and corrupt elite who run the country on behalf of U.S. corporate interests to continue to impose on Mexico a whole host of policies that have been rejected by the overwhelming majority of the Mexican people.

    We are presenting below a dossier on Mexico, with a focus on the mass resistance movement in this recent period, so that readers can appreciate fully the depth and self-organization of this movement, and so they can understand more fully why the current regime of the Usurper is implementing extreme anti-Constitutional measures at this time. The dossier also includes reports on Obama’s visit to Mexico and on the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

    What Mexico needs is not more repression and more half-baked solutions from a president imposed by fraud. It needs to restore its democracy and sovereignty — so that the people can live free from poverty and illness!

    ¡La Patria No Se Vende, La Patria Se Defiende!
    ¡El Pueblo Vive! La Lucha Sigue!
    ¡Hasta la Victoria Siempre!

  2. 2 mlyon01 May 2, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    The Coalition to Save Public Health, which is fighting disastrous budget cuts to the San Francisco Department of Public Health, issued the following statement on swine flu, public health, and xenophobia.

    Swine Flu: A Cause for Health Care Funding and Reform, NOT Xenophobia Public Health Care Advocates Come Out for May Day!

    The last decades have been marked by growing international trade, travel (more than 30 million Americans a year) and migration. Yet, when Swine Flu hits our southern neighbors, fear mongering and anti-immigrant hate speech get a lot of play in the mainstream and conservative media. Civil Rights and Health Care Advocates are united in calling for immigration reform and universal access to health care services.

    Swine flu is the newest in a litany of communicable diseases to spark international concern and outrage, a list that includes Measles, Bird Flu, Syphilis, and HIV/AIDS. Put into perspective, according to the Center for Disease Control an estimated 36,000 Americans (about 100 a day) die each year and 250,000 to 500,000 globally (SSC) from “the flu” and 1 confirmed death is reported so far from the “Swine Flu.” The SSC reports an estimated 159 Swine Flu-related deaths in Mexico.

    The problem with communicable diseases may not be diseases themselves, which are both biologically inevitable and historical, but the health care system’s ability or inability to test and treat patients. In the midst of a Global Recession Local and State Governments nation-wide, are taking drastic steps to privatize public health facilities and limit access to public health care. Here in San Francisco, “Healthy San Francisco” (HSF) has been heralded by Mayor Newsom as a success, but patients and workers say it’s terribly underfunded and long waits discourage sick patients from seeking care.
    According to members of the HSF Members Advisory Committee, the Mayor is currently proposing staffing reductions to one person at the enforcement office that make sure companies are paying into the HSF system.

    In San Francisco, “Healthy San Francisco” (HSF) has been heralded by Mayor Newsom as a success, but patients and workers say it’s terribly underfunded and long waits discourage sick patients from seeking care. According to members of the HSF Members Advisory Committee, the Mayor is currently proposing staffing reductions to one person at the enforcement office that make sure companies are paying into the HSF system.
    Mayor Gavin Newsom has also ordered $100 million in cuts from Department of Public Health programs to community clinics, health outreach teams, and public hospitals, while leaving untouched plenty of perks and bonuses for high ranking managers and department heads.

    Without public health care, sick people make economic instead of health-related decisions to see a doctor, and responsible, good people are kept in the economic and service shadows, and are less likely to have access to private medical insurance and suffer worst with cuts to the public system. There may be no greater threat to global pandemics than devastating cuts to the public health care system.
    Coalition to Save Public Health

    Up-Coming Events:
    Monday, May 4th 12 Noon at Market/Civic Center Rally for Health Care Programs, FUN!
    June 10tb March for Services, 3 PM Civic Center, TBA

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