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Bird flu: capitalism drives more deadly pandemics

Factory farm
Bradley Hughes

May 21, 2024

Recent headlines on the accelerating transmission of Avian flu from birds to mammals, including to humans, are rightly causing alarm around the world. But absent is any discussion of how capitalism's insatiable thirst for profits has brought us to this place. Here we look at the un-natural history of Avian influenza A (H5N1).

Bird flu
Avian flu has been circulating in wild and farmed birds since 2001. Hundreds of millions of birds have died in the wild or been culled on farms. In the last few years this flu has started to circulate in mammals, and in the last few months it has spread to cattle on dairy farms in the US. As of May 24, Avian influenza A (H5N1) has been detected in 63 dairy herds spread across nine states. Those nine states are scattered across the US; some are on the border of Canada and Mexico, some are along the coasts of four great lakes, and others border the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico.

Flus and other diseases that transfer from once species to another are called zoonotic. These can be more dangerous than mutations of diseases that are already prevalent in a species because they evolved in response to a different immune system. The resulting novel viruses can be much more contagious, or severe, or both, than viruses that mutate while circulating within one species. For example, COVID originated in bats, and the Spanish Flu that infected 500 million people and killed 50 million from 1918 to 1920 was a bird flu. Worryingly, a Nature paper from 2005 has shown that some of the same mutations between that bird flu and the 1918 human version are also present in the currently circulating bird flu.


Avian flu has passed into a range of mammals around the world. Since 2020, it has spread to over 48 mammal species in 26 countries.

Since the beginning of 2022, Canadian Food Inspection Agency National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease has confirmed over 3,000 cases of bird flu in wild birds and mammals across so-called Canada. Over 2,200 of them were birds including ducks, owls, vultures, swans, geese, gulls, ravens, puffins, pelicans and more. The remaining 800 mammals include bears, seals, mink, raccoons, foxes, skunks, and a dolphin. Every province has found bird flu in both wild birds and wild mammals.

 The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a list of bird flu detections in wild mammals in the US since May of 2022. The list includes twenty species spread over 29 states. The species include red foxes, raccoons, opossums, skunks, river otters. Brown, black and polar bears along with dolphins, grey seals and harbour seals have also been infected.

In Argentina last fall, 17,000 elephant seal pups, 96% of the season’s juveniles, died of avian flu. In Peru and Chile 20,000 sea lions died the same way. This was alongside the death of 500,000 sea birds. This spread to southern South America risks introducing the virus into bird populations in Antarctica that have no previous exposure and hence little resistance to the disease. The virus now infects birds and mammals nearly everywhere in the world outside of Australia.

Since 2003 there have been less than 900 human cases and those seem to be direct transfer from birds, not from other people. Over 50% of those cases have been fatal. The actual fatality rate of the disease at the moment is likely to be less than this because only people with severe cases would receive medical care and be diagnosed with avian flu. At the time of writing, there is one confirmed case of this flu migrating from cows to a farm worker in Texas, and on in Michigan. A traveler returning to Australia, is that country's first confimerd human case. We know this bird flu will be deadly to humans  – we just don’t know how deadly.

Capitalist agriculture is an unnatural disaster
Viruses and bird migrations are natural phenomena, but the way bird flu has spread and the dangers it poses are entirely a product of capitalism.

Production of poultry on mass factory farms in Canada produced over 800 million chickens and turkeys in 2022. This was done on around 43,000 farms, for an average size of almost 20,000 birds per farm. Many birds are sold as chicks for export, so the total for a year will be bigger than the number of birds on the farm at any one time. Cramming birds in small cages inches away from the next bird is a perfect way to spread viruses from bird to bird. The greater number of birds that get sick, the more novel mutations will appear in the virus.

Cattle and pigs are treated the same way. Transmission to pigs is especially dangerous for us because pigs and birds can share flu viruses more easily than people and birds. And pigs also easily share flu viruses with humans.

Workers on farms are treated little better than the animals they work with. In 2023, over 70,000 workers were employed on farms in Canada through the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. Eight thousand migrant workers worked on cattle, poultry or pig farms. A survey by the Migrant Workers Network of Temporary Foreign Workers on farms in 2021 found that more than 15% were forced to live in “houses” with more than twenty people. Nearly half were forced to share a bedroom with four to eight people and 7% shared bedrooms with more than eight people. More than half were required to share a bathroom with six to twelve people, and 8% were sharing with more than 20 people.

In 2021, the Auditor General published a report Health and Safety of Agricultural Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada during the COVID-19 Pandemic which found that inspections, “provided little assurance of protection for the health and safety of temporary foreign workers in Canada’s agriculture sector during the 2020 and 2021 growing seasons.” They found that the Employment and Social Development Canada department assessed almost all agricultural employers, “as compliant with the COVID-19 requirements . . . despite having gathered little or no evidence to demonstrate this.”

The report also lists the numerous times the auditor general had reported the problems to the department without any noticeable change in enforcement. They found that, “when conducting inspections of compliance with regularly mandated requirements—such as verifying basic living conditions like running water, occupancy level, and whether workers’ housing was free from serious health and safety risks—the department collected no information in almost all cases but found employers compliant.” They also pointed out the many times before the pandemic that advocates for migrant workers had demonstrated the problems with housing and sanitation, without the department ever implementing the improvements that it promised.

Misery makes profit
These are not flaws in the Temporary Foreign Workers Program – it is designed to allow business owners to exploit migrant workers. Migrant agricultural workers tend to have experience in their home countries and have built up years of experience working on farms in Canada. Employers can request workers by name. In British Columbia, around 80% of migrant workers from Mexico are requested directly by their employers. There are no regular inspections of workplaces, inspections only occur after complaints are made, and the employer controls what the inspectors see.

Minimum wage levels on farms are set lower than other minimum wages in Canada because employers (and the provincial governments that represent them) know that these lower wages are still higher than farm workers’ wages elsewhere in the Americas. This is all possible because the workers know that demanding safe conditions or decent wages will result in them being sent home, never to return. Low wages and terrible housing make great profit.

With the rise of the far-right anti-mask and anti-vaccine movements, and the pandering to them from political parties across the spectrum, any response to a new pandemic will be much slower and more cautious than the response to COVID 19. Remember that that response was driven by mass pressure, not government foresight. Colleges and Universities moved to online teaching not out of concern for the lives of the workers and students on campus, but because there were mass petition campaigns organized by students. In British Columbia, the Education Minister consistently refused requests by the teachers' unions for safer workplaces. For our ruling class, COVID 19 was a threat to their profits, not a threat to our health.

The return of measles?
The consequences of the ruling class disregard for our health – coupled with the growth of the far right – is shown in the reemergence of measles, one of the most contagious diseases in humans.

Measles has been around since at least the 9th century. In the first half of the twentieth century, there were 30 million cases with over 2 million deaths each year. Effective measles vaccines were developed in the 1950s and 60s. By 2016, the World Health Organization declared that the Americas were free of endemic measles. In Canada in 2017, 87% of children had received the required two doses of vaccine. By 2021 that number had dropped to 79%. The target is 95%, because measles spreads so easily and is so dangerous. One infected individual can pass on the virus to 9 out of 10 unvaccinated close contacts. This spring there have been measles cases in Ontario and Quebec that are not linked to travel – the disease is once again circulating in the population. The suffering and deaths that will result from this are due to the far-right using anti-vax conspiracy theories to build their movement, helped along of course by provincial and federal governments governments under Liberal, Conservative and NDP leaders.

Profits in agriculture drive factory farming practices that are cruel and dangerous to both the animals and to the workers on farms. As a result, diseases spread rapidly and are given many chances to mutate and/or pass onto farm workers. Canadian agriculture relies on migrant labour that it can exploit to a much larger degree than domestic workers. Migrant workers are forced into overcrowded, unclean living conditions to produce profit for agri-business. When avian flu passes into humans, it will find it easy to travel between farm workers and into the population. Instead of learning the lessons from COVID 19 about how to deal with and eliminate a pandemic, our ruling class has learned how many lives it can sacrifice in the scramble to return to business as usual.

We cannot thrive under capitalism. The only rational response to capitalism's deadly pandemics, exploitation of workers and cruelty to animals is to overturn the whole system. We need to democratically and collectively control our relationship with nature, eliminate all borders, and build a new world in solidarity with all.





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