We are facing an unprecedented challenge and opportunity that we are not simply observing as social scientists but experiencing at personal, institutional and professional levels. We are living a natural experiment whose reagents include multiple types of mobilities, clashing across different scales.
The COVID virus is a human infection of animal origin, and the outbreak is likely to have originated in a market selling dead and live wild animals as food. It is very important we appreciate the political, economic and geographic factors that collide in such markets and challenge lazy assumptions about cultural practices and finger pointing at China. Across the world, big business has undermined local food security, pushing smallholders off their land and fisherfolk from their fishing grounds, increasing the cost of food and making subsistence more difficult. As the price of protein has risen the urban poor have turned to ‘bush meat’ and rural people have moved to land that is more difficult to cultivate, sometimes encroaching on areas previously uninhabited by human populations, exposing them to new animal harms and disturbing previously resilient ecosystems.
Factory farming too has driven the emergence of new diseases. The mass ‘production’ of livestock crowds together millions of farmed animals in breeding grounds for disease and species jumping. Most recently Rob Wallace has co-authored this must-read article that describes brilliantly how, for viruses to survive, they must let their hosts live long enough to enable them to spread, but that in factory farming they must jump to the next host before the first host is slaughtered – and the next host is genetically the same, further facilitating spread. Livestock production and multinational agribusiness are owned and controlled by a handful of multinational corporations – JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill and Smithfields (the last owned by the Chinese WH Group).
The multiple intersections of (im)mobilities of capital, of food, of humans, of animals, of the microbiological have produced the contemporary situation where the ‘cure’, it seems, is human immobility. This is only a temporary cure, though, and ultimately, we will have to attend to the connection between the socio-economic and the biological that lies at the heart of human reproduction, but which has become, quite literally, toxic. Wallace et al. describe how human epidemics, including Ebola and SARS, have been multiplying and will continue to do so unless we change the structure of global food production.
To see the virus as originating in China, therefore, is to miss the powerful transnational forces at play. This is not to let the Chinese government off the hook. In a really interesting article the Chuang collective argues that China’s unregulated industries, rapid urbanization and low public spending on health, combined with the massive growth in livestock production (the world’s largest dairy farm is the Mudanjiang City megafarm with an acreage roughly equivalent to Portugal!) and the formalization of the wild food sector all contributed to the emergence and propagation of the virus.
But we desperately need a politics that sees through and beyond the scale of the national. The national is implicit in appeals to citizenship and the ready mobilising of images of being ‘at war’: this not only obfuscates the sources but also the consequences of the virus. Western media attention has focussed on the rich world, but it is people in areas of the world that have long borne the burden of resource depletion, exploitation and global inequality, who are set to carry the cost of COVID-19. Their conditions risk being further worsened by global, national and camp specific lockdowns, the cessation of donations, the impossibility of moving for livelihoods. Spare a thought for the Rohingya people under lockdown in camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar and remember that those who are malnourished or who have diseases of poverty have compromised immune systems, which mean they are more likely to become seriously ill. Those ‘migrants’ from the Global South who are resident in the rich world may fare scarcely better – think about the refugees in Lesbos expected to wash their hands but sharing one tap between 1,300 people.
The scale of the national does matter, of course. It is crystal clear that where we are living matters, as national governments are responding quite differently to the public health crisis. But this does not mean that those residing on the same territory are ‘in it together’. True, in the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince Charles have both tested positive. The virus does not recognise passports, wealth or power. Yet it is precisely this that highlights the existent inequalities that mean that some of us are more likely to develop mild symptoms than others. Some of us are also far more protected from the economic ravages that this epidemic will cause.
There are so many ways in which the current crisis is related to our work at MMB and we will be exploring them in future posts – so please get in touch with Emily (firstname.lastname@example.org) with texts and ideas. We will see how we can take this forward in a different format in the coming weeks so watch this space. Some starters for our research challenges – these are what are crossing my mind as I write – some ideas to put out there:
Trade Labour Capital: we can think about the movement of animals and the movement of people. And let’s not forget the movement of capital. After the 2008 financial crisis Goldman Sachs bought into Chinese poultry farms – reservoirs of avian flu.
Bodies Borders Justice: we can think about how human movement into new areas has affected zoonotic transmission (importantly let’s not blame the ‘migrants’ here but look at the forces behind such movement). Frustratingly MMB have had to cancel the activity we planned to hold jointly with the Bristol BioDesign Institute and the New School for Social Research on ‘Biomia’, exploring microbiological mobilities – seems we were ahead of the curve on that one!
Control Conflict Resistance: we can think about the surveillance and mobility controls being ramped up and normalised across the world – what is the risk of these ‘sticking’ after this phase has passed?
Imagination Futures Belonging: how can we think relationally, enabling us to locate the origins of the crisis not in a single animal in a wet market in Wuhan, but in entanglements whose ‘knots’ are not only in Beijing and Hong Kong but also in global cities like New York, London and Paris?
In the recent uprisings in Chile one of the slogans was ‘We won’t go back to normal because normal was the problem’. Normal was indeed the problem. What can we start learning from the current situations to move towards a better, more just, normal?
Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol.