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Out of sight, out of mind

Hunger
Military
Forced from home by US airstrikes in the Lower Shabelle region,
this girl tries to rest at a camp for internally displaced persons near Mogadishu, Somalia, March 2020.   

Bad tech

Silicon Valley firms have been quick to seize opportunities. Palantir – a firm that analyses data to help US immigration enforcement agents identify and plan raids to apprehend undocumented people – has been contracted by the UK government to do data-mining, consolidation and modelling for its National Health Service.

Amazon, the online shopping leviathan, is making a killing, with customers spending a reported $11,000 a second on its products and services. Founder Jeff Bezos’ personal fortune increased by $24 billion in the first quarter of 2020 – equivalent to the GDP of Papua New Guinea, a country of nine million people. The company has refused to allow its workers in California to take even unpaid time off, while reaping profits from public contracts with the US and UK governments to deliver at-home test kits.

Amazon is funnelling some of these profits into developing worker-surveillance software. Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, has reportedly introduced heatmapping technology to track when its beleaguered workforce meet in groups while on shift, predicting when they’re ‘at risk of unionization’.

Demand has also surged for software that can monitor employees working from home with programs that, according to Adam Satariano of The New York Times, track the words we type, snap pictures with our webcams and offer managers rankings of who is ‘spending too much time on Facebook and not enough on Excel’. The software maker Hubstaff markets this as respecting privacy because workers know they are being watched.

These novel forms of surveillance are being packaged as ‘smart’ ways to adapt to a post-pandemic economy, entrenching the Silicon Valley surveillance model in our everyday lives.

The expanding military-industrial complex

On 23 March, UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez called for a global ceasefire in response to the pandemic, arguing that the ‘fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war’. While the public faces this enormous health threat, militaries are struggling to prove their relevance, calling for expanded budgets even though worldwide military spending is actually at an all-time high.

Global military expenditure, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), saw its biggest spike in a decade, with a total of $1.9 trillion spent in 2019. According to the 2020 Global Aerospace and Defence Industry Outlook report released by Deloitte, this trend is set to increase in the coming year, with an anticipated growth of three to four per cent.

This doesn’t bode well for Yemen’s escalating humanitarian crisis. The Saudi-led coalition doubled down on its militarized offensive in April, despite agreeing to a ceasefire in March. The Yemen Data Project recorded at least 34 air raids with up to 164 individual airstrikes from 16 to 23 April – a 31-per-cent escalation in bombings since the ceasefire was declared.

Warm words from the British Foreign Office notwithstanding, its support for Gutierrez’s call for a global ceasefire rings hollow as the government continues to allow passage for BAE Systems cargo flights from a war plane factory in England to Riyadh. While boasting a ‘robust arms export process’, in reality it has failed to carry out ‘regular and thorough inspections’ at these sites.

There’s no doubt that the cash being thrown at war toys could be better spent. Campaign Against Arms Trade calculated that just the UK’s defence budget increase since 2015 would be enough to pay the annual salaries of 150,000 nurses, while the cost of acquiring ten 138 F-35 fighter jets would pay for 30,000 ventilators.

Further, military fleets themselves have been recognized as places where the risk of contagion is high during this pandemic. Reuters reported that two fleets, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the French aircraft-carrier Charles de Gaulle, both had more than 1,000 Covid-19 cases aboard in March. Movements of large masses of people in close proximity make warships prime candidates as super-spreaders.

Unsurprisingly, however, large-scale military offensives continue unabated. The Intercept reported that in the first four months of this year, US Africa Command conducted more airstrikes in Somalia than it did during all of Barack Obama’s eight years in office.

A boon for big mining

According to the London Mining Network, environmental activists in the Philippines are being arrested for violating lockdown rules while mining companies continue to operate. Government offices are closed but new mining licences are being granted anyway.

With most in-person shareholder meetings in hiatus, scrutiny of many of the larger mining companies is also winding down. Some Annual General Meetings are being held with as few as two shareholders present and with little opportunity to question projects that campaigners say are having a destructive effect on their communities.

According to Colombia Solidarity Campaign researcher Diana Salazar, thousands of Indigenous Wayuu children are living in water-scarce areas near Cerrejon – a huge open-cast coal operation run by BHP, Glencore and Anglo American that consumes vast quantities of water.

‘During the crisis the company has been delivering food parcels, yet it plans to restart operations in an area where there is little access to health facilities, exposing indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities to a higher risk of infection,’ she told The Ecologist.

Anglo American also made a whopping 300 applications to explore for gold and other minerals in indigenous territories in the Brazilian Amazon, which are already undergoing record levels of deforestation as the pandemic rages.

Hunger growing

Lockdown school closures have had a desperate knock-on effect on the World Food Programme (WFP), which supports some 37 countries in lunch delivery programmes for children from low-income households who would otherwise go hungry. The WFP estimates that more than 300 million children from low-income families are losing a stable source of regular nutritious meals due to school closures.

This puts extra pressure on regions already affected by climate-related hunger, including Guatemala, which has seen almost 80 per cent of its maize grown in the highland region lost to a poor harvest season, according to Oxfam.

Similar trends can be seen in Zimbabwe, where a combination of consecutive droughts and extreme currency inflation has left the rural poor without livelihoods.

Hilal Elver, a UN Rapporteur on the right to food who visited Zimbabwe in 2019, told ITV news: ‘Through climate change, droughts are longer, deeper and much more severe and they come very often.’ Meanwhile, international long-term climate finance and adaptation talks (COP 26) have been postponed until next year.

Hunger is escalating in the Global North too. An investigation by Channel 4 revealed that in the UK, 96 per cent of head teachers said that the voucher scheme intended to replace the free school meal system for children in lockdown – worth £15 ($18.5) per child, per week – and which over one million low-income household students rely on, was not working.

One head teacher from South London even put £5,000 ($6,170) on his own credit card to pay for goods at a supermarket because he ‘didn’t want his pupils to starve’.

In the world’s wealthiest nation and the leading Covid-19 epicentre, the US, Native Americans living in Navajo territory are stuck in ‘food deserts’ where many residents, including the elderly who have been advised to self-isolate, must drive an average of three hours to access food stores. According to NPR, if the Navajo Nation were a state it would have the highest rate of coronavirus cases per capita after New York.

With the closing of restaurants, schools and hotels, industrial farms were struggling to sell their produce, dumping crops in monumental proportions, causing unprecedented levels of food waste. The Dairy Farmers of America calculated that farms were dumping 140 million litres of milk each day in April, and a single chicken processor was smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs every week.

Writing about the Great Depression in The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck wrote of a similar food emergency, lamenting how food was grown to be sold, not consumed by those in need: ‘Dump potatoes along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out.’

New Internationalist issue 526 magazine cover This article is from the July-August 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
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