The cost of connection? Globalisation and the pandemic threat

Bill Pritchard, The University of Sydney

Andrew Nikiforuk Pandemonium: How Globalization and Trade Are Putting the World at Risk, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 2006 (320 pp). ISBN 9-78070223-618-1 (paperback) RRP $26.95.

In the last chapter of Pandemonium, Andrew Nikiforuk unravels the frightening chain of events that led to the SARS emergency of early 2003. In January in Guangdong Province, China, after crossing the species barrier from bat to cat to human, the virus causing severe acute respiratory syndrome attacked a 37-year old shrimp salesman who sought refuge in Zonshang Traditional Hospital. There, he quickly infected 130 hospital workers and patients. One of the infected was a medical professor from Hong Kong who, upon returning to that city to attend a wedding, spread it to twelve of the guests. Within days, three of these took the virus to Singapore and two took it to Toronto. In Singapore, one of the initial ‘super-spreaders’ infected 24 health-care workers, fifteen patients and twelve visitors alone. In Toronto’s Scarborough General Hospital, 128 health-care workers, patients, and visitors soon became infected. A guest at the hotel where the wedding reception was held then spread it to Hong Kong’s Prince of Wales Hospital, where the virus infected eight percent of the hospital’s staff. Within days it then crossed the straits from Hong Kong to Taiwan, where a 58-year old traveller spread it to 137 victims at Municipal Hoping Hospital in Taipei.

The story of SARS’ migration out of Guangdong tells the broader theme of this book, namely, that there is a dark side to the marvels of global inter-connectivity. Ease of movement of goods and people carries a hidden vulnerability to all sorts of unwanted and unforeseen hangers-on. According to Nikiforuk, humanity so far has escaped the worst of the downside of globalisation through sheer dumb luck. In nine chapters written entertainingly, Nikiforuk details and dissects these connections.

Avian flu has become the bell-ringer of this new age of vulnerability. The emergence of chicken as the world’s cheap meat has a back-story of rapacious poultry firms, complicit regulators and scientists with a zeal for organisation and productivity. As poultry became industrialised, the backyard chicken shed was replaced by ‘the four horsemen of the flu: density, efficiency, drugs and big money’ (p. 8). Avian flu is merely the most recent in a series of viral outbreaks to afflict the industrial poultry industry—the narrative is successive waves of intensification interrupted by disease outbreaks handled by new technical fixes (generally involving new pharmaceutical solutions: ‘after desperate Hollywood housewives, broiler chickens are probably the most drugged denizens on the planet’ (p. 9).

In the battle over the global chicken, however, viruses have a habit of outwitting their human handlers. Avian flu appeared in its present form (H5N1) in Hong Kong in 1997 but has since evolved into a series of new strains placing the task of control on a knife-edge. Its propensity to jump species (it has killed all manner of beasts including tigers, as well as humans) makes it an unnerving co-inhabitant. Its only saving grace is the strain’s inefficiency with regards to person-to-person transmission: if and when a new strain evolves with transmissive efficiency, its pandemic potential would be dire.

In the battle over the global chicken, viruses have a habit of outwitting their human handlers.

Chapter Two, ‘Juggling species’, explores the implications of biological invaders. Well accustomed to the environmental history of rabbits, cane toads and Indian mynahs, this chapter strikes a chord to the Australian reader. Yet as Nikiforuk points out, invasive species do more than unsettle ecosystems; they have massive implications for public health. This is what he labels the ‘great reshuffling’. The pace of global exchange has unleashed a massive transference of species (from microbial upwards) across geography which makes ‘the Columbian Exchange [following 1493] look like a Mickey Mouse affair’ (p. 48). The list of invaders includes foot and mouth, West Nile virus, boll weevils, Dutch elm disease, and fire ants. As Nikiforuk argues:

Our long and cultivated ignorance of biological invaders helps to explain why ordinary folk are now surfing the Internet looking for flu remedies. It might also explain why an army of diverse invaders embargoed a third of the world’s meat trade in 2003 and why nervous doctors swarm to congresses dedicated to ‘emerging diseases’ (p. 31).

After detailing how invasive pests are costing the North American economy around US$137 billion per year, Nikiforuk suggests:

Few if any of these outrageous economic robberies ever show up on any government or corporate ledger. Nor has any auditor general brought global traders to task for ruining local economies with deliberate or accidental invasions of influenza, ants, or water hyacinth. The reasons for such deadly oversight are simple, says David Simberloff [a University of Tennessee ecologist]. For starters, importers and exporters don’t hold biology degrees. But the real problem always comes down to accountability. The costs of invasions are borne not by the merchant class but by consumers. The global health bills for avian flu are sent not to poultry factories but to taxpayers (p. 51).

In Chapter Three (‘Livestock Plagues’), Nikiforuk takes these ideas forward by focusing on the relationship between animal health and global trade. The livestock which feeds humanity is highly vulnerable to pest and disease threat.

All around the world, dumb meat machines raised in climate-controlled buildings are now replacing smart livestock that didn’t need vaccines, antibiotics, or formulated rations to live well. Hardy chicken breeds that both laid eggs and made a good soup have disappeared (p. 61).

This reduction in genetic diversity represents a ticking time-bomb. As Nikiforuk demonstrates in his review of the Great African Pandemic of the 1890s (when the invasive Rinderpest virus wiped out East African livestock herds and produced famine amongst local populations), there can be profound implications from dependence on single genetic stock. ‘The livestock revolution will continue to provoke a biological counter-revolution’ (p. 82), he suggests by way of summation.

Many deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s disease might instead have been caused by vCJD.

Mad cow disease raises its ugly head in Chapter Four (‘The Triumphant Prion’). Tracing the origins of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD, the human version of mad cow disease) through its brain-eating antecedents, Nikiforuk reveals the connections between industrialised farming, heavy meat-based diets, and public (ill)health. Fascinatingly, he poses the question of whether many deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s disease might instead have been caused by vCJD. There has been a dramatic increase in Alzheimer’s disease during recent decades (654 deaths in the United States in 1979 and 60,000 in 2004) and Nikiforuk cites several studies that suggest various rates of vCJD misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease. ‘Out of 4 million diagnosed cases of Alzheimer’s disease in North America, 120,000 may actually have CJD, caused by eating beef infected with a strain of BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease]’ (p. 108). Obviously, the misdiagnosis of Alzheimer patients leads to significant under-estimation of the full public health costs of the industrial food protein system.

Chapters Five and Six (‘Rusts, Blights and the Invaded Larder’ and ‘Resurrecting Anthrax’) are the two weakest chapters of the book. The former focuses on the disease susceptibility of large-scale agriculture: a highly relevant topic, but one to which Nikiforuk does not add significant new insight. The latter addresses an important issue (biological warfare and bioterrorism) but appears out-of-place in the context of other chapters.

Chapter Seven (‘Marine Invaders’) tracks the global resurgence of cholera as evidence of the polluted state of the world’s fresh and seawaters. With globalisation, local biological systems within fresh and seawaters have become compromised. Invasive species—everything from cryptosporidium to algal blooms to molluscs to worms and exotic fish—are creating a muddy soup of ecosystem instability. Telescoping these issues into Lake Victoria, East Africa, we are shown how a complex and sustainable aquatic ecosystem and surrounding local economy can be thoroughly undermined by an invasive species which comes to dominate its environment. In this case, Nile perch (introduced by the British) have come to account for 80 per cent of the aquatic biomass in the Lake (p. 191). The construction of the Nile perch export economy of Lake Victoria is understood by Nikiforuk as follows:

In Russian planes, crates of iced perch now fly out of Africa to be served on Japanese and European [and Australian!] tables… Although the invader has increased nutrition production fivefold, none of this nutrition stays home and half of the children around the lake go hungry. Thousands of women have lost their jobs processing furu [traditional local fish] for local markets, and most of the perch goes to fish factories elsewhere, run by wanderers from India and Europe. With no furu to peddle anymore, local women started to sell sex for the scraps of the global Nile perch trade in the 1990s (p. 191).

Hiccups in trade cause global stock exchanges to oscillate wildly.

Putting together the social and ecological dynamics of this system, Nikiforuk dryly observes that the destruction of the traditional fishing economy and the ensuing rise of the sex industry has encouraged the situation where the population around Lake Victoria now carries one of the highest HIV rates on the planet and so ‘an entire fishing industry designed to exploit the unexpected fecundity of an invading species [that is, Nile perch] may soon be annihilated by the predatory work of an invasive virus’ (p. 192).

Climate change brings an additional element of instability to the processes of species invasion and global exchange, and Nikiforuk brings these hazards together in Chapter Eight (‘Climate Riders’). Focusing on ticks, mosquitoes and beetles, he paints a picture of local environments and populations increasingly under threat from exotic diseases. And finally, in Chapter Nine (‘Nemesis: The Global Hospital’) he makes the point that hospitals are perfect carriers for all the ills he regales in earlier chapters. So the very institutions designed to alleviate the severity of globalisation’s dark side, in the words of Nikiforuk, actually contribute to the problem.

Clearly, to read Pandemonium is to be overwhelmed and depressed at the extent and complexity of the problems facing the planet. Only the most bare-faced hyper-globalist cornucopian could not be moved by the book’s impressive marshalling of evidence. As Nikiforuk plaintively suggests (p. 5) ‘welcome to the new normal’: a world where the fruits of progress enjoyed by the few are premised on a system-wide threshold of intensified risk.

So what to make of this? It might reasonably be suggested that the dire threats detailed in the book should warrant a dramatic and profound transformation of the economic and political institutions of global society. Realistically, however, this isn’t going to happen. As Nikiforuk mentions at one point, a super-tanker takes a long time to change course, and there is no larger metaphorical super-tanker than the global economy. Hiccups in trade cause global stock exchanges to oscillate wildly, and propel governments to nervously propose financial bail-outs with the purpose of engendering market confidence. Britain’s over-the-top response to the 2001 foot and mouth crisis suggests that when faced with disease threats, governments may go to extraordinary lengths to protect their capacity to participate in global trade, rather than hunker down and seek a different paradigmatic response to the issues of trade, environment and biology.

It may be that the world is indeed one sneeze away from a pandemic.

So if we assume governments of their own volition are incapable and unwilling to respond to the threats and risks catalogued in Pandemonium, we are left with the scenario that globalisation will ‘muddle on’ until humanity’s dumb luck runs out. The book’s Epilogue (‘The Next Pandemic’) revisits the great flu of 1918–19 to provide lessons for what the next great pandemic may look like. It isn’t pretty reading. Emergency quarantine regulations will severely curtail global trade and people movement. In the context of just-in-time logistic technologies, this will flow rapidly into shortages of goods and services. Bureaucracies will collapse leaving cities, provinces and countries in varying states of disrepair. ‘In the end’ opines Nikiforuk ‘it will all come down to family and community, the only first responders that have ever mattered in history’ (p. 263).

He reaches these conclusions on the basis of solid argument and evidence, but by the end of the book, it’s almost as though Nikiforuk is willing on the next pandemic; cheering on from the sidelines as some poor individual in Southern China (or wherever) splutters up a deadly virus. On the last few pages, the analysis of globalisation’s dark side has transmogrified into a survey of globalisation ‘end-times’. Adopting a preaching tone, the deaths of millions of humanity are seen as a sign of hope for the future, a Sodom and Gomorrah redux for an ailing planet. And Nikiforuk layers on the bathos:

A severe pandemic might encourage us to rethink the deadly pace of globalization and biological traffic in all living things. … Long after the monotony of deprivation and separation, the survivors of the Great Mortality will kiss their loved ones each night and hold them tight. Then they will light candles, true plague light, and pray for deliverance from more invaders (pp. 264–265).

And this is where I depart company from Andrew Nikiforuk. Perhaps, as he forcefully suggests, the world indeed is one sneeze away from a pandemic that will radically reshape our relation to our environment. But to deploy an ‘end-times’ rhetoric is to invoke a politics of disengagement if not nihilism. Progressives everywhere must fight for light to be shone on the dark side of globalisation, and for governments to be brought kicking and screaming to account for their pig-headedness in rejecting, denying, or ignoring globalisation’s underbelly. Pandemonium does a great service in pursuit of these objectives, but I don’t wish a plague on humanity to prove its underlying thesis correct.

Dr Bill Pritchard is a senior lecturer in economic geography at The University of Sydney.

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