(OPE-L) Mike Davis: A Deadly Plague of Slums

From: gerald_a_levy (gerald_a_levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Wed Feb 04 2004 - 19:53:15 EST

Does anyone on the list know enough about this subject to say
whether Davis presents a needlessly alarmist or plausible scenario?
In solidarity, Jerry

From GloboList:

 "Thanks to global neo-liberalism disease surveillance and epidemic
 response are weakest precisely where they are most important: in the
mega- slums of  Asia and Africa. That's where the brushfire of H5N1
could turn into a deadly biological firestorm."

Published on Tuesday, February 3, 2004 by TomDispatch.com
A Deadly Plague of Slums
by Mike Davis

 Mass death soon may be coming to a neighborhood near you, and the
 Department of Homeland Security will be helpless to prevent it. The
terrorist in this case will be a mutant offspring of influenza A subtype
H5N1: the  explosively spreading avian virus that the World Health
Organization (WHO)  worries will be the progenitor of a deadly
global plague.

 The most lethal massacre in human history was the 1918-19 influenza
 pandemic that culled more than 2 percent of humanity (40-50 million
people) in  a single winter. Although never proven, many researchers
believe that the pandemic was caused by a bird virus that exchanged
genes with a human  strain and thus acquired the ability to spread
easily from person to person.  Humans have little immune protection
against such species' jumps.

 The biological reservoir of influenza is the mixed agriculture of
 southern China where wild and domestic fowl, pigs (another influenza
vector)  and  humans are brought into intense ecological contact in
farms and markets.

 Breakneck urbanization, a soaring demand for poultry and pork, and
 what Science magazine recently characterized as "denser concentrations
of  larger poultry farms without appropriate biological safeguards" create
 optimum conditions for the rapid evolution of viruses and their promiscuous
 passage from one species to another.

 Influenza, indeed, is like a viral fashion industry: every winter changing
styles (glycoprotein coats) to create new strains, but then, perhaps every
30 years, undergoing a revolution (species jump) that unleashes a
 virulent pandemic.

 The last pandemic killed half a million people in 1968, but scientists
interviewed by Nature and Science expressed fears that H5N1 might be
 on the verge of evolving into something more like the 1918-19 monster.
 Although so far we have confirmation only that it has been transmitted
by direct contact with birds and especially their droppings, the current
strain is far more lethal than last year's SARs epidemic that caused so
much international havoc. As a result, a top researcher told Nature,
"Everyone's preparing for the worst-case scenario." At this moment,
WHO investigators are checking on  the terrifying possibility that the first
 human-to-human transmission has already occurred in Vietnam.

 Moreover H5N1 is spreading at a much higher velocity than previous
 avian flus. There have been outbreaks annually since 1997 -- a
phenomenon  that puzzled WHO researchers until they discovered that
migratory birds are dying in large numbers across Asia. (It is chastening
to recall that West Nile virus, also a bird disease, was able to "fly"
across  the Atlantic.)

H5N1's progress has also been abetted by poor monitoring and
government secrecy in half a dozen countries, but especially in Thailand,
Indonesia, and China. The Chinese staunchly deny covering up an avian
epidemic as they did SARs, but the eminent virologist Kenneth Shortridge,
interviewed by Science, said all evidence points to "natural reservoirs in
southern China" where the disease might have emerged as early as last

This winter's moderate flu epidemic, which overwhelmed emergency
rooms and quickly used up supplies of vaccine, vividly demonstrated
how ill-prepared even the richest countries are to deal with an imminent
pandemic. Current vaccine production lines, which depend upon a limited
supply of  fertile hen eggs, couldn't meet even a fraction of potential

But a true pandemic would probably overwhelm the world long before a
vaccine could be developed and produced in large quantities. The potential
accelerators of a new plague are the huge slums of Asia and Africa.
Concentrated poverty, indeed, is one of the most important variables
in any model of how a pandemic might grow.

The bustees of Kolkata, the chawls of Mumbai, the kampungs of
Jakarta, or the katchi abadis of Karachi are, from an epidemiological
standpoint, landscapes saturated in gasoline, only awaiting an errant spark
like  H5N1. (Twenty million or more of the deaths in 1918-19 were in poor,
congested and recently famished parts of British India.)

Last fall the United Nations Human Settlements Program published a
historic report, The Challenge of Slums, warning that slums across the world
were growing in their own hothouse, viral fashion. One billion people,
mainly uprooted rural migrants, are currently warehoused in shantytowns and
squatters' camps, and the number will double in the next generation.

The authors of the report broke with traditional UN circumspection to
squarely blame the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its
neocolonial  'conditionalities' for spawning slums by decimating
spending and local manufacturing throughout the developing world.

During the debt crisis of the 1980s, the IMF, backed by the Reagan
and Bush administrations, forced most of the third world to downsize public
employment, devalue currencies and open their domestic markets to
imports. The results everywhere were an explosion of urban poverty and
sharp  fall-offs in public services.

A principal target of IMF austerity programs has been urban public
health. In Zaire and Ghana, for instance, "structural adjustment" meant the
laying off of tens of thousands of public health workers and doctors.
Similarly in Kenya and Zimbabwe, implementation of IMF demands led to
huge fall-offs in  healthcare coverage and spending.

In South Asia, likewise, investment in public health has lagged far
behind the growth of slums. The five largest cities of the region alone have
a total slum population of more than 20 million, and standards of
sanitation are symbolized by ratios of one toilet seat per 2000 residents
in the poorest parts of Bombay and Dhaka.

Thanks to global neo-liberalism, then, disease surveillance and
epidemic response are weakest precisely where they are most important:
in the mega-slums of Asia and Africa. That's where the brushfire of H5N1
could turn into a deadly biological firestorm.

In that event, it would consume more than just the poor. Once a new
pandemic had acquired the momentum of mass mortality in Asia it would
inexorably spread to North America and Europe. It would easily climb
the walls of gated communities and other fortresses of privilege.

Here, of course, is the rub. In the past, the rich countries, with few
exceptions, have shown callous indifference to the monstrous human
toll of  AIDs in Africa or of the two million poor children annually
claimed by malaria. H5N1 may be our unexpected reward.

Mike Davis is author, most recently, of the kids' adventure, Land of
the  Lost Mammoths (Perceval Press, 2003) and co-author of Under the
Perfect Sun:  the San Diego Tourists Never See (New Press, 2003).
He is currently working on a book about the recent political earthquake
in California, Heavy  Metal Freeway (to be published by Metropolitan

Copyright C2004 Mike Davis

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