The Pandemic and the Kleptocrat: Predators and Parasites of the Anthropocene

In the past eight weeks I’ve read four equally scary magazine articles.  They are (in no specific order):

  1. Sarah Kenzidor’s reflections on the Trump family as aspiring kleptocrats, enabled by global organized crime and kindred autocracies;  
  2. Frank Portnoy’s prediction of a financial crisis in the fall of 2020 from collateralized corporate debt, amplified by lingering dysphoria from the 2008 bailouts; 
  3. Vinay Gupta’s Twitter thread about pandemic driven food shortages among vulnerable populations, which begins with a not-at-all-subtle header of “FAMINE FAMINE FAMINE”;
  4. Ed Yong’s compilation of stories about the uneven tally of successes and failures in the US corona virus pandemic response, with most of the successes to date going to the virus.

All of these writers have deep expertise in their fields. Sarah Kenzidor has a PhD in Anthropology and has written widely on the dangers of autocracy in the US and abroad.  Frank Portnoy is a former investment banker who has published several books on the shenanigans of Wall Street prior to the 2008 financial crisis. Vinay Gupta is a resilience expert, tech entrepreneur and futurist.  Ed Yong is, well, Ed Yong—one of the most talented and creative science writers to grace the pages of The Atlantic.

I’ve read their work for years, and when they talk I listen.  When they are alarmed, I am alarmed.  When each of them is anticipating a different kind of disaster right around the same time, I think we may be in for some difficult days ahead.  Individually their voices are alarming.  Together they create a woeful chorus that sounds a lot like an overture for the Anthropocene: a quartet of overlapping crises that accelerate synergistically in a catastrophic doom loop not at all good for humanity.  Even if they are only half right, we may be headed for a period of rapid, irreversible and unhealthy changes in core systems of governance, economics and subsistence.

The current corona virus pandemic is the obvious common denominator for two of the potential disasters outlined above: financial crisis and food shortage.  The pandemic is only six months old and has already triggered painful economic contractions, mass unemployment, and disruptions in food and medical supply chains.  Under these circumstances, the eventual development of a financial crisis and widespread hunger in vulnerable populations does not seem far fetched. 

Pandemic planning exercise, hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

In fact, it is a common theme in pandemic planning scenarios to assume massive economic losses will follow from prolonged business closures and mass mortality.  One particularly memorable tabletop exercise conducted by professionals at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in 2018 ended with trillions of dollars in economic losses and the complete collapse and subsequent nationalization of the United States health care system.  The fictional pathogen in that scenario was termed Clade X, and all of the experts assembled for the five hour live streamed exercise had one thing in common: they were smart, dedicated professionals doing their best to manage a difficult situation while representing diverse constituencies.  No one was deliberately stupid or venal, and no one tried to derail the pandemic response by spreading anti-science falsehoods or aggressively promoting unproven remedies. 

And that is why Sarah Kenzidor’s warning about the risks of autocracy is so important right now.  Pandemics are bad enough even with good government.  With an aspiring autocrat in office, combined with the overall increase in global political corruption since the end of the Cold War, pandemics can become epic, rolling multidimensional disasters.

We don’t usually think of the Anthropocene as having a specific mode of governance.  Most writers imagine widespread institutional collapse driven by the environmental devastation of climate change.  If there is an Anthropocene form of government, it recedes to the background in humanity’s struggle for habitable space, edible food and breathable air.  The Western concept of “nature” as distinct from “culture” may be partly to blame for this misperception.  In the era of social modernism (aka the twentieth century) nature was conceptually subordinated to culture by the global technocrats of modernization theory.  In their world view, nature was destined to be tamed by technology, and the most destructive anti-human forces of nature (floods, famines, plagues) were largely engineered out of “modern” spaces. Modernists assumed that the persistence of nature and “natural” disasters in post-colonial spaces was a legacy of the primitive past, not evidence of their own wrongdoing or a warning sign for humanity’s collective future.

Anthropocene scholars often imagine nature roaring back with a vengeance and destroying modern spaces through the twenty-first century and beyond.  Geopolitical boundaries and political space are less relevant in these scenarios, as the only meaningful geographic divisions are dynamic shifts between habitable and uninhabitable land.  But I think this apolitical view is wrong, or at least incomplete.  We must understand autocracy and kleptocracy as dialectic accelerants of Anthropocene ecological change, especially in regards to the evolution and amplification of novel pathogens.

SARS corona virus-2 is a new virus, meaning it is a life form that first evolved in the year 2019.   It is a recent cousin of SARS Corona virus -1, which gave us a dark preview of coming attractions back in 2002-2003.  The evolution of new pathogens is a natural process, but that does not mean that systems of governance are irrelevant.  Autocracies increase pandemic risks and pandemics create emergencies that require centralized power and erode democratic rule.  In the case of SARS 1 and SARS 2, this unharmonic convergence of nature, culture and politics begins in bat colonies.

For a variety of reasons (group living, flight, migration) bats harbor a lot of symbiotic viruses that have the potential to spill over into other species and cause deadly outbreaks of disease.  Ebola, SARS, MERS, and Nipah are all recent examples of the evolutionary process that disease ecologists call “zoonotic disease spillover.”  There are two parts to this process:  a bat virus acquires new genes that allow it to infect humans, and then undergoes another set of evolutionary changes that allow for sustained transmission from one human to another.  The result is a new human disease for which we have no real technology for prevention or control other than pre-modern measures of isolation and quarantine.  Mortality rates are high because there is no prior immunity in human populations.   

Pandemic planners and disease ecologists have understood the risks posed by novel pathogens for a long time, especially in light of the expansion of global trade and travel since the end of the Cold War.  Global health specialists like Peter Daszak and his group EcoHealth Alliance have sought to implement policies to protect bat habitats and other wildlife from encroachment by humans to reduce the potential for disease spillover.  Monitoring stations were established in tropical rainforests to examine how novel viruses might infect hunters, loggers or other groups that regularly venture into these areas for subsistence.  One innovative set of policies that unintentionally reduced pandemic risks was attached to the 2010 Dodd-Frank bill.  Known as the Cardin-Lugar Act, it sought to curb global political corruption by increasing transparency and accountability for multi-national corporations engaged in natural resource extraction.

But autocratic governments with kleptocratic tendencies regularly find ways to distort and undermine environmental regulations.  Even remote, “natural” geographic space is still political space, meaning it exists inside the marked boundaries of an established nation-state and is vulnerable to the reach of greedy political operatives seeking to monetize natural resources. There is a lot of money to be made, for instance, in the global illicit wildlife trade—somewhere between seven and twenty-three billion dollars per year at last count.  So conservation efforts are often undermined by poaching.  In some cases poachers operate independently, but in kleptocratic states there is often some level of cooperation with corrupt officials who tolerate illicit activity in exchange for a percentage of the payoff.  

Logging road in Papua New Guinea. Image © Global Witness.

Some bats habitually roost or forage in valuable old growth timber, which means bat colonies are displaced or forced into greater contact with humans when illegal loggers clear cut remote tracts of forest.  At last count, the global trade in illegally harvested timber was generating over fifty billion dollars per year, with most of the illicit wood flowing into China from countries like Brazil and Indonesia.  Political corruption fuels all sides of this trade, and the rapid environmental destruction that accompanies clear cutting has already played a role in facilitating outbreaks of bat borne viruses like Ebola in west Africa and Nipah in Indonesia.     

The Trump administration has not yet descended to the depths of corruption and mismanagement characteristic of more established autocratic states, though not for lack of trying.  One of the first legislative actions the administration undertook, for instance, was the repeal of the Cardin-Lugar act, which made it easier for multi-national corporations to bribe corrupt officials and extract natural resources in poor countries.  But a completely corrupt government takes time to build:  respectable front men must be installed and gradually disempowered while the actual machinery of looting is   consolidated behind the scenes.  But if the financial crisis predicted by Frank Portnoy coincides with the famine anticipated by Vinay Gupta later this year, the remaining guardrails of US democracy may very well vanish around the time of the November presidential elections, pushing us into the world of Sarah Kenzidor’s dark predictions.  If the Trump administration were to succeed in transforming itself into a dynastic kleptocracy, the result will be a rapid acceleration of global environmental destruction, with policy initiatives configured to enrich a small confederacy of kleptocrats and nothing more.   At that point it becomes very likely that one or more additional pandemic pathogens will emerge from this institutional and environmental rubble, propelling us farther away from the rational technocratic world of social modernism, and into the chaotic uncertainties of the Anthropocene.


Katherine Hirschfeld is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of “Microbial insurgency: Theorizing global health in the Anthropocene” (The Anthropocene Review, vol. 7 (2020), pp. 3-18).