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Sunday, May 10, 2020

Notes on Mike Davis's Monster at the Door: the Global Threat of Avian Flu


the reason the doctor knows everything is because he’s been everywhere at the wrong time and has now become anonymous. - Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

So I went into this pandemic with my eyes closed. I had no real notion, save from some rare reading, what a pandemic was, what it meant, how it worked.  Since, I’ve looked up things, I keep up with the world-o-meter every day about infections and deaths, I rage against the stupidity in the U.S., and in the E.U., I think about the fact that under fucking Sarkozy France had a more rational stock of medica materia for use in epidemics than it does even now (Sarkozy! I’ve long despised Hollande, but to get nostalgic for Sarkozy you have to be driven mad by circumstances), I’m your regular horsefly caught in a jam jar. But I have only begun to understand the modern ecology of the pandemic by reading Mike Davis’ Monster at the Door: the Global threat of Avian Flu.

The first two chapters of the book should clue you in: this was a mass death foretold, and it is only going to get worse if we don’t rethink globalization globally. It is a book so full of info that is shocking and overlooked that well, it is a sadness.
Item: the mad Trump idea that Covid19 was a laboratory creation is probably wrong, but it is almost certain that H1N1, an influenza type that appeared in 1971, was the result of a lab accident in the Soviet Union or China.
Item: covering up lab accidents and epidemic threats is common. H5N1/97 is one of the deadliest Avian viruses, although it is rare, yet, that it crosses over to people. It is a virus that does things like, well, causes birds to literally bleed from their eyes and all other parts so that they “melt”.
““It reproduced much faster than ordinary flu strains, and in cells that ordinary flu strains couldn’t live in, and if you grew it in eggs, it killed them. This virus, said Lim [a Hong Kong scientist], was like an alien.” Indeed, when veterinary researchers in Athens, Georgia, infected a poultry flock with the recently isolated human strain, the entire flock died within a day. Horrified scientists, who had never seen such a rapid killer, immediately donned biohazard containment suits and dosed themselves with antivirals; this ignited a controversy about the safety protocols necessary for work with the Hong Kong virus. Influenza diagnostic labs, at least in the United States, were not equipped with the elaborate containment systems required for working with such a potent virus: federal biosafety guidelines had not anticipated an influenza that acted like the nightmare protagonist of a sci-fi thriller.
Did you know that an avian flu epidemic was discovered in Holland in March 2003 that required the destruction of millions of chickens from a strain that caused conjunctivitis among people who had contact with it? Did you know these strains are popping up all over – for instance, H6N2, which infected  tens of millions of birds in California  in a four-month period beginning in March 2002, leading to a mass slaughter that was kept quiet, since the agribusinesses involved thought that it would scare people. Right. Or that Canada had a severe virus outbreak in 2004 in Fraser Valley, British Columbia, that the Canadian government intentionally covered up,
“Several dozen workers involved in the gassing and incineration of the 19 million chickens subsequently developed conjunctivitis and/or flu-like symptoms; two definite H7N3 cases were confirmed but the victims were infected by different strains, evidence that the virus was evolving at very high speed.159 There was also considerable controversy about the disposal of infected chicken excrement after expert testimony that the virus might survive for as long as three months in manure.

Item: all of the stuff about herd immunity is hooey. You either have deathtolls in the hundreds of thousands or you apply the 19th century techniques of quarantine, plus 21st century testing and tracking. This has been happening much more frequently than I know about – and I would guess most people. In Hong Kong, in South Korea, and especially in Guangzhou province in China.
Item: the global food economy has undergone a “livestock” revolution, as Davis rather clumsily labels it. That means that the amount of chicken and pigs, living in close quarters, has increased exponentially in number and in concentration.:  pork and poultry constitute 76 percent of the developing world’s increased meat consumption, and poultry has accounted for almost all of the small net increase in rich countries’ food consumption. The viral “food supply”—poultry, swine, and humans—has been dramatically enlarged.” Deal is, you concentrate the animals in small areas, and you expand the population, and you have no global veterinary watch – one of the crucial points in the book is the minimal overlap between human health organizations and veterinary organizations – you are practically inviting in flu. Especially as you have a wild bird population that has evolved over a million years to mostly coexist with a number of virus types in their bodies. Odd thing is, the species crossover of these viruses to humans results in a change in the symptoms and attack of the viruses – from the digestive system to the lungs.

Item: the hunt for wild animal meat, in Africa and Asia, is a result of various changes in the global economic system. For instance, in Africa, those demographics that used to depend, largely, on fish can’t anymore – because European and Asian fishing fleets have sucked up their fish supply like a vacuum cleaner. At the same time, the forests are being cut down, and the cutters are hungry: so they want to eat meat. What’s on the menu is anybody’s guess.

So yes, the next flu might jump from some weasel to a chicken to a human, or from a weasel to a human directly.

I’m itemizing – the information load in this book is amazingly dense, and one feels like scrawling down items on a piece of paper in order to remember them. But it is also amazingly well written, moving like a thriller in which you find out, on the end page, that you are the victim. And unlike other books about epidemics, the concentration is not just on the U.S. or even Europe. Like “The Victorian Holocaust” – Davis’s superb book on famine in the late nineteenth century – there is an attention paid to India, Latin America, and Africa that is unusual. The Spanish Influenza (which might really have been called the Kansas Influenza, since it probably popped there) is usually written about only in terms of the states – but the scythe was much much heavier in India, where, under British rule, with the food and supplies taken away for the war and British imperial matters, 10-14 million people died. Never watch a movie glorifying the Raj without remembering – it was an empire built on millions and millions of skulls. The British rule in India is one of the great human disgraces.


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