Mexico's Swine Flu and the Globalization of Disease

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.

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

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.

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. He noted that a child died there of swine flu but other
cases proved negative and inspection of the animals showed no signs of
an outbreak. 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

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 $12.8 million fine on Smithfield Foods for violation of the Clean Water Act. In September of 1999 an appeal upheld the ruling.

1994, the year NAFTA went into effect, Smithfield established the
Perote operations with the Mexican agrobusiness AMSA (Agroindustrias
Unidas de Mexico 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."

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.

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

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

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

For More Information:

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.