A new variant has arisen, and with it a new wave of anti-vax nonsense, and a new reminder that colonialism (or whatever you want to call its modern incarnation) is a danger to all of us. Because of the international response to the discovery of the Omicron variant, I wanted to dig into several topics that I see converging here.
First, the relatively simple stuff: vaccine misinformation. There’s one line in particular that I think is going to end up sticking around if we’re not careful, and to me it stems from a partial understanding of how evolution works. In particular, it’s an “understanding” I’ve seen in a few different video games and TV shows, probably driven by Herbert Spencer’s twisting of natural selection to mean “survival of the fittest” in a colloquial sense. The idea goes like this – if you want to grow and evolve, you have to put yourself in increasingly difficult situations so that you’ll be forced to become stronger in order to survive. To borrow a hypothetical from Abigail Thorn’s excellent video on Darwin and Marx, if you wanted to create a species of wooly mice, you just take a population of ordinary house mice, and drop them off in the middle of Baffin Island, then wait a few generations. Come back, and you’ve got a new species of mice evolved to deal with extreme cold, right?
Wrong. You’ve probably got a bunch of dead, frozen mice. More likely, you’ve got none of that, because those mice were probably eaten in the first generation or two. To evolve a new trait, you need more than just the pressure to change, you also need to have a population capable of surviving that pressure for enough generations to actually take advantage of any cold-adaptive mutations that might arise. Without that stable population pool to throw new generations against the harsh conditions, even if a mouse were to win the genetic lottery and get a mutation that gave them thicker fur, if there’s not a population of mice to breed with, that one mouse variant will still die out, because it was alone, and a singular organism cannot a new species make.
So. COVID variants. As I said before, there are some people who believe that new variants- and in particular the dreaded vaccine-resistant variant -come about because by introducing vaccines, we are creating a challenge for the virus to overcome, and so we’re “training” it to be vaccine resistant. What this misses, of course, is that in order for the virus to be able to get around vaccines, it needs to have a large un-vaccinated population to keep generating new variants to try. While none of the vaccines seem to give total immunity, they do dramatically reduce both symptom severity (which mean fewer deaths and fewer Long Haul COVID patients), and transmissibility. That last bit is what we care about when it comes to evolution. A virus like COVID has a time limit for each person it infects. Once it gets a foothold in our bodies, it will replicate and spread as much as it can before our immune system fights it off, or before we die.
Let’s imagine we have a single unvaccinated person. That person catches COVID. Regardless of the severity of the disease, that person will expose everyone near them to the virus they’re hosting. If everyone near them is also unvaccinated, most of them will also get sick, with their own time limits, infect other people in turn, and so on. As the virus replicates in each new person, it is also changing, at least a little. The more people have the disease, the more likely it is that one of those people will play host to a new variant. If, on the other hand, the people surrounding our first patient are all vaccinated, whatever variant the infected person has will die when that infection ends. If there’s a breakthrough case, then we have another patient, who is also surrounded by people with a high resistance, and once again, the virus faces a massive barrier to its survival beyond that patient.
To COVID, a population that’s 95% vaccinated is like Baffin Island to our ill-fated population of southern mice. It’s hypothetically possible for those mice to survive, and if they do, it’s possible that they will evolve new traits, but even if they do manage to have two or three generations, the change will be very slow, and it might only take one bad winter to wipe them out and end the experiment.
If you take a less vaccinated population, it’s more like starting your new mouse population in one of the human communities on the island, where they’re more likely to find food and shelter to help them survive. That population is then regularly dispersing new mice into the areas surrounding their “home base”, increasing the odds that one will have the thick fur needed to thrive, and will pass that along to future generations, moving us toward our goal of wooly mice.
Or brought back out of the hypothetical, the unvaccinated become “variant factories”:
Unvaccinated people do more than merely risk their own health. They’re also a risk to everyone if they become infected with coronavirus, infectious disease specialists say.
That’s because the only source of new coronavirus variants is the body of an infected person.
“Unvaccinated people are potential variant factories,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told CNN Friday.
“The more unvaccinated people there are, the more opportunities for the virus to multiply,” Schaffner said. “When it does, it mutates, and it could throw off a variant mutation that is even more serious down the road.”
All viruses mutate, and while the coronavirus is not particularly mutation-prone, it does change and evolve.
Most of the changes mean nothing to the virus, and some can weaken it. But sometimes, a virus develops a random mutation that gives it an advantage — better transmissibility, for instance, or more efficient replication, or an ability to infect a great diversity of hosts.
Viruses with an advantage will outcompete other viruses, and will eventually make up the majority of virus particles infecting someone. If that infected person passes the virus to someone else, they’ll be passing along the mutant version.
If a mutant version is successful enough, it becomes a variant.
But it has to replicate to do that. An unvaccinated person provides that opportunity.
“As mutations come up in viruses, the ones that persist are the ones that make it easier for the virus to spread in the population,” Andrew Pekosz, a microbiologist and immunologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told CNN.
“Every time the viruses changes, that gives the virus a different platform to add more mutations. Now we have viruses that spread more efficiently.”
Viruses that don’t spread cannot mutate.
This is not new information. We’ve known all this for a long time, which is why there has been concern from the beginning of this pandemic about the danger presented by vaccine hoarding. For all the U.S. likes to pretend that Trump was a massive outlier in his nationalism, the reality is that all administrations in living memory have taken a largely “America First”-style approach to foreign policy, which has in turn created poverty, violence, and political instability in poor countries around the world. To varying degrees, this is true of all colonial powers – the essential dynamic of extracting wealth from foreign countries never went away, it just changed form. As colonies gained their “independence”, they found themselves deliberately under-developed, and stripped of wealth and natural resources. Most of them, in an attempt to rebuild from centuries of oppression and plundering, agreed to take on loans either from their former colonizers, or from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
These loans generally come with conditions restricting the kinds of development on which that money can be spent. Countries with natural resources were told that because the infrastructure to make goods out of those resources already existed in other countries, it would be a “waste” to build them in the former colonies, so instead those colonies had to ship out their raw or partially processed materials, and then buy back the products made from them.
Some countries have asserted their sovereignty, and insisted that they should be able to profit from building those products themselves, rather than buying back their own natural resources at a markup, have been punished. The 1953 coup in Iran was over oil. The recent coup in Bolivia followed the decision to use Bolivian lithium deposits to make products like batteries, and sell those to the world, rather than simply selling the lithium to foreign corporations.
The continent of Africa was almost certainly the hardest-hit by the brutality of colonialism. The Atlantic slave trade depopulated many areas along Africa’s western coast, and colonies set up by European powers saw generations of slavery, brutal violence, and genocide, as well as deliberate under-development and under-education. The loans offered by colonial powers have not just been used to force Africans to buy foreign products made from their natural resources, they’ve even forced countries like Ghana to choose between loans, and taking care of their own food production:
Africans today live in extreme poverty and hunger while most western corporations continue to flourish based on the control of resources and markets they do not own. Therefore, if Africa wants to count its enemies, there can only be three supposed ones; The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization. To further explain the structure and mechanics behind this mass destructive strategy of those three organizations, let us take Ghana as a case study.
Ghana is one of the countries with abundant natural resources. The resources are so much that the whole country could have been catered for without any external help since the country size is fairly small.
Some years back, rice farming towns in the northern part of Ghana were thriving. This was because these communities enjoyed subsidies (such as free subsidies fertilizers) from the Ghana government so as to produce rice on the large scale for the whole nation. Ghana back then witnessed abundant rice production where the people only enjoyed their locally produced rice.
However, the IMF and the World Bank came in and as part of their policies, the institutions would not grant the government of Ghana any more loans unless the subsidies being given to the rice farmers were cut off.
The strategy was to force Ghana into rice importation from the partners of the IMF and the World Bank including the USA. The effect we see is that Ghana now imports almost all the rice eaten in the country at huge prices while the rice farming communities in the country starve to death!
Because of this imposed poverty, and the extreme economic toll of epidemics, most African countries have prioritized their healthcare infrastructure, and many have developed a capacity to detect, assess, and respond to new diseases that far exceeds anything in wealthier nations. That is why it should not be a surprise that Botswana first detected the Omicron COVID variant. It is also why the international stereotype of Africa as poor and “backwards” (which generally ignores the historical factors that led to present conditions) is so harmful. Most people in the United States, and in Europe probably don’t know how far ahead of us many African nations are when it comes to dealing with infectious diseases, in every way that doesn’t require the resources they have been denied. Absent a knowledge of the history and material conditions creating Africa’s poverty, a lot of white people – even well-meaning ones – tend to default to the white supremacist narratives about race that pervade “Western” societies. Those narratives lead people to blame Africans for conditions that have been externally imposed upon the continent, and so to justify responding to disease outbreaks by basically locking up the whole continent, and focusing less on saving African lives, and more on letting the outbreak run its course without leaving Africa.
Which brings us back to the Omicron variant, and the international response to Botswana doing exactly what they were supposed to as responsible members of the world community, who are at the cutting edge of virus detection. Travel bans for Africa, despite the variant being detected in multiple other countries around the world.
I think it’s worth repeating: We don’t know where the Omicron variant came from. It had probably been circulating for at least a couple weeks before it was detected, and it has been spotted in multiple countries. It would be one thing for the US and nations like it to cut off all international travel, as Israel did, but the US (which has maintained its lead as the country with the most confirmed cases, even compared to bigger countries like India and China) chose to cut off travel to seven African nations, but not the UK, the Netherlands, or other countries that had detected the variant.
Further, it’s worth considering the impact of a travel ban. Because of the things I talked about earlier, a lot of African economies rely heavily on tourism from former colonial powers. Cutting off travel means cutting off a large amount of income to countries that are already struggling. Doing that to African nations and not European nations highlights the systemic devaluation of African lives that seems to be the default among colonial powers. This also shows up in the phenomenon of vaccine hoarding, which was a problem that we saw coming long before the vaccines were available. It’s a problem that did not need to exist. Removing intellectual property restrictions would allow African countries to manufacture their own vaccines, dramatically improving their ability to fight the pandemic, saving countless people, and reducing the chances of variants developing there in the future.
But as we’ve seen, profit comes before human life in global capitalism, and that goes double for black lives. It’s pretty clear that in the unlikely event that COVID is brought under control in the rest of the world, Africa will just be sealed off and ignored right up until a new variant leaves the continent, at which point they’ll be blamed for it. Pandemics are, by definition, global problems. They require global solutions. These nationalistic policies and self-serving half-measures are extending the pandemic far beyond what was unavoidable.
As with any other discussion of racism, there’s the problem of people assuming that unless they’re given a signed statement of racist motivation, there’s some “good reason” for a policy that is racist in impact. The reality is that deliberate malice – while it exists – is not required for the creation of bigoted, harmful policies. All that’s needed is a lack of concern for the harm those policies will do to the group in question. You could argue that vaccine hoarding or travel bans are due to an abundance of concern for the wellbeing of the countries doing that, but only if you also assume that the people responsible don’t know the damage their policies will do, and aren’t aware of the inconsistency in which countries are affected. We know that is not the case.
The leadership of wealthy nations and of pharmaceutical corporations all have access to more information than any other leaders at any point in history. They know better, they just don’t want to do better, because in this capitalist hellworld, profit matters more than anything; and white supremacy, as a central part of capitalism from its inception, is built into the global economic infrastructure.
As I keep saying, we need global solidarity if we’re going to survive climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a horrifying “trial run” of how the crises of a warming world will play out under the current power structure. Poor and working people are expendable, and Africa’s only value is in the wealth and entertainment it can generate for the ruling classes of the wealthy nations that manufactured and maintain the poverty of African people.
We are entering a period of unprecedented chaos and upheaval. Our planet is headed for temperatures beyond human experience, and at the same time, pollution and unsustainable resource use are leading us to multiple health, resource, and ecological crises. If we are to adapt to this new world we’re creating, we’re going to need to work together. Returning to the hypothetical of the wooly mouse, we’ve all been put into an alien climate, and we need to take care of our existing population as a species to ensure that we’ll have the time and numbers to survive and thrive.
Fight white supremacy. Fight bigotry. Organize and train to build collective power. Look for opportunities to practice solidarity with both the people around you, and with people on the other side of the world.
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