Cooperativism as a firewall for the coronavirus

Cooperativism as a firewall for the coronavirus

René Mendoza Vidaurre and Inti Gabriel Mendoza Estrada[1]

-Coronita, coronita, how hungry you are! SARS told you that in 2002 and 2003 it stuffed itself with a handful of people

-Come on, sister! 7 centuries ago our great, great grandmother, “the black plague” took away a third of humanity.

-And you, how many are you going to take?

-Just a few!… It is they themselves who are pulling me one way and the other …

-Ah yeah, they demolish our homes in the jungle and destroywhat they call “animals”, and their own fear feeds off their families.

Through the years we have learned that the risks of unhealthy conditions occur when demographic growth, social deterioration and environmental degradation are combined. People have well-being when they are healthy in body and mind, in community (social) and in sustainable environmental surroundings. Supported by historians of the plagues that have decimated humanity on several occasions, we draw the following rule of thumb: viruses multiply when they have the appropriate conditions that humanity creates for them- “they themselves are pulling me one way and the other.”

This reminds us of what happened to us with coffee rust in Central America. Weak, overpopulated coffee fields on “tired” soils attracted rust, and it devastated them. Consequently, the blow was harder in Nicaragua, a little less in Honduras, and less in the rest of the countries of the region (Mendoza, 2013[2]). Returning to pestilences, McNeill (1976[3]) studied dozens of plagues that have hit humanity through the centuries; he tells us that, for example, the “black plague” made the feudal system fall into crisis, because of the scarcity of labor, because half of the European population died, and because the loss in prestige of the institutions of that time.

In this article we explain the conditions that foster COVID-19, and we propose ways of dealing with it. We do this more in light of the role that associative organizations (cooperatives, associations, associative enterprises) could play as the first firewall.

Conditions that foster coronavirus

Neoliberal capitalism – in other words, elites with the passivity or impotence of the rest of humanity – have harmed the natural, health and social conditions of countries in the world, conditions that became conducive for the expansion of plagues. Concerning the natural conditions, the United Nations says that the epidemic “is the reflection of environmental degradation” (Zandonai, 2020)[4]; the more deforestation, the more explosion of viral diseases (Aizen, 2016)[5]; the more mono-cropping and agro-business, the more epidemics (Wallace, 2016)[6]. Concerning health, in the last 40 years the State was cut back in countries and markets took on world governance, even in education and health, which in large measure were privatized; in Italy in the last 10 years 70,000 hospital beds were lost, 359 wards were closed, and small hospitals abandoned (see Ginbe Foundation report)[7]; there are 3.2 beds per 1,000 inhabitants, while in Germany there are 8[8]. In Spain between January and February 2020, in full coronavirus expansion, 18,320 health care workers were laid off; a union denounced that the firing is similar to 2013, the year of adjustment cuts and policies[9]. Concerning social conditions, for more than a century capitalism has bombarded us so that we might become individualists and grow up under the rule that “I am if I beat you,” “I will save myself in order to go to heaven”, or, as they used to say in a rural community in Central America, “when the prices for coffee were good, we would buy a motorcycle or a car to drive it once a week, without it really being a necessity.” It is a consumerism at the cost of going into debt, and a celestial religiosity counterproductive for human survival.

With the black plague in the years 1347-1353, the rich went to their homes in the countryside, and the poor were left trapped in the cities; there the State kept them, isolated, blockaded, and watched over (Braudel, 1979[10]). Now fear is preached through digitalized media (facebook, twitter…) and people are forced to stay in their homes, while borders are closed and health systems are overwhelmed. Behind those fears, big capital is lying in wait; Klein (2010[11]) shows what she calls “disaster capitalism” where big capital in the last 30 years takes advantage of natural disasters to dismantle the remains of the Welfare State and impose the neoliberal model; today this big capital could be taking advantage to lull our societies to sleep, diverting our attention from the harmful effects of neoliberalism that attracted COVID-19 and set the bases for accumulation through dispossession; for example, making States improve the public health care system with society´s resources to later privatize it at absurd prices, promoting laws that would reduce or exonerate the rich from taxes and/or tax pardons for big agro-businesses.

The effect of COVID-19 obviously is differentiated; in that sense it would help us to see the Korean movie “Parasite” released in 2019. In that movie a poor family finds work as servants, tutors and drivers for a rich family. They live in the basement of a house, symbolically they are underground, but through their windows they see the sun and the street that rises in front of them; they have hope and the vision of getting out of poverty, moving up to the first floor. One day, while they are in the home of the wealthy family, it begins to rain; the boy of the house takes his tent out to the garden to sleep under the sound of the rain, and his parents lay down on the sofa to be close to the boy. The poor family in contrast, leave for their neighborhood where the rain turns into a storm on the horizon. THomes are flooded, the people try to get the water out of their homes. For the elite, that rain is like COVID-19, a simple restriction, that of not going out, a bother; while for the working and peasant class, it is not just their health, it is that their entire lives are at risk.

The debate in Europe between the generation called the baby boomers (born after the second world war, between 1946-1964) and the current generation around COVID-19 and climate change, illustrates different perspectives. Climate change, which is part of the conditions that facilitated COVID-19, came with the baby boomer generation, while COVID-19 with the current generation. The current generation is fighting to protect the baby boomer generation (now over 60 years of age), who are more susceptible to coronavirus, and at the same time are questioned over climate change. Gibney (2017[12]) in the United States accuses them of pillaging the economy of the country, cutting taxes and ignoring climate change, and bequeathing the disorder that they created to the generations to come.

What do we do?

In our countries there is more hysteria, disinformation, fear and preachers, who for last 2,000 years in the face of each disaster repeat that they are the signs of the “end times”. We also are dusting off science and venerating virologists. At the same time, there is some awareness to question State institutions and the world governance of the market, there is some awareness that COVID-19 could be repelled by coordinated human action, like the hundreds of plagues that humanity has confronted, be it through human solidarity, herd immunity (protecting the most vulnerable and allowing a good number of the population to be infected to stop the advance of the virus[13]), quarantines in homes and/or territories, quick diagnoses…

In the face of the crisis of institutional legitimacy, and in the face of big capital “lying in wait”, forms of participatory democracy through associative organizations could make a difference; particularly those democratic, transparent organizations that have social legitimacy. These organizations can meet and provide truthful information to their members and their specific communities, informing them for example about hygiene: washing your hands with soap, washing dishes, avoiding touching your mouth, nose and eyes with your hands, places where the virus enters the respiratory system; preaching calm by example. These measures would be the first firewall that would keep coronavirus from reaching more vulnerable people.

These organizations and other institutions of the world should build the second firewall to coronavirus and the next plagues. We should be alert so that the responses that governments provide to coronavirus do not facilitate big capital accumulating through dispossession, as happened with the financial crisis of 2008 when big capital, in spite of having generated the housing bubble, damaging the financial system with effects on the world food supply, received substantial resources from society, which Klein (2007) defines as “disaster capitalism”. Being watchful and promoting tax increases on big capital which is behind the neoliberal policies, taxes to improve the capacity of the health care system of all countries: in a parallel fashion associative organizations should improve their own social policies, like the use of the social fund that they collect to face this type of situation, particularly when impoverished people feel scorned by the health care system.

Associative organizations and other institutions can help the population reflect about how social and environmental inequality benefits COVID-19, about how the workers are important to build different futures – here the third firewall. These organizations can deepen cooperation in the communities, promote diversified and ecological production systems, cause change in our diet, preferring products not contaminated by agrochemicals, generating social policies to confront crises like COVID-19.  Associative organizations also can ask questions instead of repeating beliefs that rather attract COVID-19, examples:


  • Question, what facilitates the spread of the virus? versus belief “God is going to protect me from COVID-19” (in other words, “God is going to wash my hands”);
  • Question, Why do the social security and private hospitals neglect patients? Versus belief “only the private hospitals ensure human health”
  • Question, What jobs do the wealthy create for the workers confined to their homes in need of food? Versus “the workers are unnecessary” …
  • Question, What farming repels pests, creates more jobs and helps humanity? Versus “more agrochemicals, more food”

In conclusion

If the uncertainty is the only certainty in our societies, our rule should be “I am, if you are”. Staying at home, in communities, stops the virus in the short term, helps families unite, reproduces the population, contributes to nature reviving itself, stops climate change…like the black plague in the middle ages, with calm we must understand and adapt to COVID-19, whose effects are not just expressed in the loss of human lives, but also in blows to social and environmental inequality.

Associative organizations and other institutions can assume a role of leadership in the communities, particularly with the three firewalls described here: providing true information, preventing capitalism from hardening and rather revert the conditions that create the virus, and building different futures. The three firewalls are possible if we express solidarity in a thousand ways. McNeill (1976) recounts that in the face of the black plague in the middle ages Christians took care of the sick, “they helped one another in times of pestilence” and that in this way they contained the effects of the plague. Let us keep the fear of death from controlling us; Dr. Jacqueline Estrada tells us, “fear is the emotion that does more damage in times of crisis and what makes states of hysteria be created and paralyzed actions”; let us remember what SARS said to COVID-19 in the story at the beginning of the text: “their own fear feeds off their families”.

Along with associative organizations, knowing that COVID-19 is an adversity, let us remember that “behind adversities are opportunities”. Let us make an effort to see that “behind” and watch for alternative futures to neoliberalism. This is possible if in addition to the rule that “I am if you are” we assume that “we are, if the communities where we live and we accompany, are”.


[1] René has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of the IOB- University of Antwerp, and a member of COSERPROSS. Inti Gabriel is getting his Masters in the University of TU Graz of Austria. It is an article open to suggestions and criticisms.,

[2] R. Mendoza, 2013, “Who’s responsible for the coffee rust plague and what can be done?” in: ENVIO 379.

[3] William H. McNeill, 2016, Plagues and Peoples. Anchor Press. First published in 1976.

[4] Roberta Zandonai, 2020, PNUMA Brasil, see

[5] Marina Aizen, 2016, “Las Nuevas Pandemias del Planeta Devastado”, in Revista Anfibia. Argentina. She says: “It is nothing more than the result of the annihilation of ecosystems, mostly tropical ones, demolished in order to plant mono-crops on an industrial scale. They are also the fruit of the manipulation and trafficking of wildlife, which in many cases is in danger of extinction.” The theologian Roberto Hurtado reminds us that 2,000 years ago, Paul of Tarsus warned that the world was groaning for its liberation (Rom 8:22); and Pope Francis in Laudato Si says that the cry of the earth and the poor is the same cry.

[6] Rob Wallace, 2016, Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. USA: Monthly Review Press. Wallace argues that, within the framework of capitalism, the food production model (industrialized mono-cropping and fattening of animals) at the cost of the natural ecology, is generating ever more dangerous pathogens for humanity. Wallace warns us that COVID-19 is not an isolated incident.

[7] Report of the GINBE Foundation, 2019, see summary in the Republica magazine

[8] Data for March 25, 2020: World case fatality rate is 4.5% (435,066 infected and 19,625 deaths). Italy with 9.8% (69,176 infected and 6820 deaths); followed by Spain with 7.2% (47,610 infected and 3,434 deaths); then China with 4% (81,661 infected  and 3,285 deaths). Germany is surprising with  0.5% (34,009 infected and 172 deaths), see statistics at :  What is Germany´s secret? 1) They prepared two weeks before the arrival of coronavirus; 2) they prioritized early detection and tested more people than neighboring countries. They followed the rule of the world health organization: “Fight the virus if you know where it is”.


[10] F. Braudel, Las Estructuras de lo Cotidiano.

[11] Noami Klein, 2007, The Shock Doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism. Metropolitan Books.

[12] Bruce C. Gibney, 2017, A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America. USA: Hachette Books

[13] England is following a different strategy from the one suggested by the World Health Organization (WHO) (see: 1, isolate the first cases, look up their contacts and keep them in quarantine. Phase 2, called delay; protecting the most vulnerable (elderly and chronically ill) and allowing coronavirus to propagate in the rest of the population; in this phase a sufficient number of people are infected and achieve herd immunity (a big enough group of people are protected and are a firewall keeping the virus from reaching those who are not protected). It is also a way of providing more time to develop the vaccination.

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