Pandemic As Symptom: COVID-19 And Human-Animal Relations Under Capitalism

Bella Devine-Poulos

Progress in Political Economy | August 13, 2020

Zoonotic disease pandemics such as COVID-19 present us with an opportunity to reframe how we understand capitalism by visibilising the role animals are forced to play in its processes, and the forms and spaces of human-animal contact that are dominant in our world. The production process and the reproduction of capitalist social relations and human bodies depends on captured and domesticated animals’ lives, bodies and deaths, just as it necessarily leads to the expulsion and mass death of ‘wild’ animals.

My Honours research centres on reading human-animal relations under capitalism through notions of disease and cure. It uses zoonotic disease as a central metaphor for the instability of the human-animal dichotomy, the inseparability of humans from ‘nature’ including at the micro-level of ecology, and the persistent vulnerability of human bodies. My purpose is to bring other animals to the fore of how we understand capitalism, against the general tendency to present the global capitalist political economy as an autonomous system of human interactions.

While analysing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our political economy and the way governments around the world have responded to and sought to manage the crisis is important, it is also important to turn our minds back to how it and many other zoonotic disease pandemics and epidemics (and even epizootics) started.

3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, and tend to be traced to two key sources: the production of space through deforestation and the enclosed spaces of animal exploitation, from the cattle farms of England to the meat markets of Wuhan. Many clusters of SARS-CoV-2 infection have been found in meat processing facilities. The conditions therein precipitate disease amongst human workers, as we have seen even with the Melbourne clusters of Covid-19 at Cedar Meats, Somerville Meats and JBS Meats. The situation is even more dire for the animals they are paid very little to discipline and dismember whose wide range of sicknesses are considered primarily in economic terms.

The treatment of livestock with medicine reveals the unique position of other animals in the production process, occupying a space between capital and labour. As ‘capital’, dosing dairy cows with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories is akin to doing maintenance on machines used in the production process; as living beings whose physical reproduction is central to the profitability of capital, they are akin to ‘labour’.

While disease and death are inevitable, their prevalence and the forms they come in are driven by social and political factors. This is the case from livestock epizootics, to global pandemics to local extinctions. In India, for instance, vulture populations have been decimated by diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug given primarily to dairy cows in order to keep them living longer and producing more milk.

Vultures have historically been a crucial part of urban ecology in India. As scavengers, vultures survive off human and other animal carrion, using their high levels of pathogen resistance to increase the sanitation of their environment while reproducing their own lives.

The vultures’ remarkable transformation of death into life through their bodies’ gradually evolved resistance to disease stands diametrically opposed to the pharmaceutical industry’s transformation of life into death. Sustaining livestock through medicine is aimed at realising optimal value in their deaths, and is driving the vulture population to extinction.

With 97% of the populations of India’s three vulture species decimated, vulture conservation and breeding is on the rise as zoologists attempt to manage the excesses of capitalist speciesism. In these conservation areas and breeding centres, vultures are free from the threat of mass death but are nevertheless rendered subjects of anthropocentric biopolitical regimes which take individuals of other animal species as examples of a generic form; replaceable.

When humans meet other species, it is more often than not at the latter’s expense.

The COVID-19 pandemic should have brought to the forefront of our minds the kinds of human-animal relations and encounters of life and death which shape our world. As a crisis of mass death traced back to the enclosure, exploitation and dismemberment of other animal bodies it shares much in common with the vulture extinction crisis.

Even the generic anonymity of individual animals viewed through an anthropocentric lens is an experience that humans come close to once they die in a form of mass death like a pandemic, where biosecurity regimes become involved in the disposal of their bodies in mass graves, and their passing away is represented by alienating statistics.

In a multispecies world we must come to think of disease and cure along less anthropocentric lines to fully comprehend the effects capitalist societies have on the animals they encroach upon, expel and create, and the effect this has on forms of human life in a class society.

Vultures go extinct as cattle are bred to die. Koalas become infertile and come closer to extinction due to chlamydia originating in livestock. Wildlife are traded and killed and eventually a worldwide pandemic infections over 15 million people in 7 months, with the working class, unemployed, disabled and elderly at the greatest risk. Farmed animal lives become a form of ‘oversupply’ in the midst of the ensuing economic slowdown, and are exterminated en masse.

Abolishing the speciesist relations of capitalism that exist between humans and animals is the preventive medicine that is needed to avoid these crises.

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