More important reads from across the web: Bank Holiday edition

A sobering look at what the pandemic is likely to mean for efforts to control HIV, tuberculosis and malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, by a McGill University communicable disease epidemiologist

A United Nations Development Programme report envisioning the first worldwide decline in the Human Development Index since UNDP started calculating the index in 1990

Human development is facing an unprecedented hit

Source: United Nations Development Programme

University of Warwick researchers point out that including capital gains in estimates of income inequality means that income distribution in the UK is even more unequal than previously thought

A list of heavyweight social scientists argue, rather optimistically, for democratizing work in the post-crisis world

A preview of a new book on the 1965-66 US-backed mass murder carried out in Indonesia by supporters of Suharto

And an intriguing argument by David McCoy, from Queen Mary University London, that in the post-pandemic world ‘we need a manifesto’, not just a coronavirus disease control plan

Realism versus Monbiot: Thoughts on possible worlds of post-pandemic reconstruction

George Monbiot is only one of many commentators who have argued the need for a post-pandemic programme of economic reconstruction that will address environmental concerns as well as the imperative of restoring and securing the livelihoods of literally hundreds of millions of people. The importance of this latter imperative cannot be overstated. In the US alone, unemployment by the end of April quadrupled to 14.7 percent, with 20.5 million jobs lost.  In the UK, the Bank of England has warned of a doubling of unemployment to nine percent and a shrinkage of the economy’s overall output to a 300-year low.   The UK unemployment figures are less horrific than they otherwise would be because of a massive debt-financed programme of wage and salary compensation that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has correctly characterised as unsustainable. 

Against this background, Monbiot (and I am not picking on him here; he is rather the most articulate and best informed proponent of this perspective, and therefore the most difficult target) argues that ‘[g]overnments should provide financial support to company workers while refashioning the economy to provide new jobs’ outside the automobile, fossil fuel and airline industries.  It is now a commonplace that after the financial crisis of 2008, governments bailed out many of the financial institutions that had caused the crisis – that is, their shareholders, managers and workers – rather than those who bore the worst consequences.  Monbiot argues that: ‘This is our second great chance to do things differently’.  But with government debt and expenditure levels relative to GDP already approaching twentieth-century wartime levels, just to finance short-term remediation, the unavoidable question is:  do things differently with what? And where will the investment necessary for such new jobs, and the financing needed to support workers’ transition to them, come from?

It is nice to envision, as a team of luminaries including Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz and climate economics authority Sir Nicholas Stern has recently argued based on an expert survey, that post-pandemic reconstruction can contribute to reducing climate impacts through investment  in ‘clean physical infrastructure, building efficiency retrofits, investment in education and training, natural capital investment, and clean R&D’, whatever that is.  The authors do not explain where the money will come from, in a world where the estimated US$2.5 trillion annual investment needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals before the pandemic was nowhere in sight.

It is possible, in theory, to envision mobilising the needed resources by way of income and wealth tax rates that were prevalent after the Second World War, responding to wartime government debt and expenditure levels.  Many of these are now probably infeasible because of the concentration of ultra-wealth in financial instruments and tax haven real estate, and because of possibilities for capital flight that can best be limited through transnational cooperation in a world where a corporate-financed US Congressional candidate has claimed that ‘[f]reedom and democracy are best secured when banking secrecy and tax havens exist’.

If the ultra-rich are probably beyond the reach of national public policy, then the menu of policy options shrinks considerably.  When many dividends have already been cancelled, whose income does Monbiot propose to reduce, whose assets to tax or seize, and how?  What happens to firms that cancel dividend payouts when investors flee their shares, making it impossible for them to raise new capital in response to lockdown-created shortfalls?  How can green jobs be created by seizing foreign oligarchs’ London property holdings, their financial assets having long ago been safely shifted elsewhere?  How many of the Russell Group universities’ 508 senior staff who were paid more than the prime minister in 2018-19 will agree to salary cuts or marginal tax rate increases for the greater good?  Will their response be representative of their broader posh demographic?  Will clinicians who own second homes be content with strongly progressive taxation of their increased value over the years?  What are the legalities of much-needed retrospective wealth taxation?

In short: How are these dreams to be paid for? 

These are not rhetorical questions, and they should be the starting point for conversations that substitute serious consideration of political economy for cheerleading. Even in high-income countries, the post-pandemic menu of policy options is likely to be circumscribed by the International Monetary Fund’s role as a gatekeeper to financial markets – a role that low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have experienced with often bitter consequences over the past decades, with the impacts compounded by capital flight.  Given the dire situation of LMICs, what justification can the high-income world offer to the world’s majority outside its borders for not taking advantage of fossil fuel prices that have sunk to the pre-1973 levels that enabled today’s rich to get that way, unless its development assistance agencies and investors are willing to increase their commitments by at least an order of magnitude?   Such conversations may have begun, but I am not hearing them. 

No exit? The United Kingdom’s probable Russian Future

As many governments are announcing strategies for ending lockdowns, we have the curious situation in which the leader of the Labour Party and the Adam Smith Institute agree that the UK government needs to set out such a strategy, but the government refuses to do so.  It says only that five tests must first be met, but gives no evidence of being able to meet any one of them.

This is dangerously irresponsible, and is likely to have long-term negative consequences for public health and health inequalities – consequences that most public health researchers and practitioners seem determined to ignore.  Look ahead, for example, to next January when new border controls (the UK imports 30 percent of its food from the European Union) create food shortages whilst economic collapse worsens fuel poverty that was already a substantial public health issue before the pandemic.

In the absence of a clear, credible and rigorously implemented exit strategy, the future may well resemble the situation in Russia after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.  The economy contracted by close to 50 percent, existing social provision mechanisms and large portions of the health care system crumbled, and life expectancy – especially for men, who now are hit harder by the coronavirus – plunged by several years.  Conventional wisdom attributes a substantial part of this transition to alcohol consumption, but from a social determinants of health perspective this is explanandum rather than explanans: that is, it demands explanation rather than providing one.  Twenty-five years on, Russian life expectancy still did not reflect the country’s economic recovery.  That recovery was accompanied by rising economic inequality, massive capital flight, and the emergence of a new stratum of politically connected billionaire oligarchs.

All this could be avoided, but there is no sign that either the UK government or the public health community are even taking these risks seriously. 

Additional sources on the Russian experience: 

Field MG and Twigg JL, eds. Russia’s Torn Safety Nets: Health and Social Welfare during the Transition. New York: St. Martin’s Press; 2000.

Field MG, Kotz DM, Bukhman G. Neoliberal Economic Policy, “State Desertion,” and the Russian Health Crisis. In: Kim JY, Millen JV, Irwin A, Gershman J, eds. Dying for Growth: Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press; 2000: pp. 155-73.

Against Covid-19 fetishism, and other musings

Herewith a few equity- and policy-oriented musings about the latest state of the pandemic world.

1.  Media, and many researchers who should know better, seem obsessed with the number of deaths from Covid-19, or associated with Covid-19.  Good reasons exist to want to know this over the short term, for purposes of tracking the spread of the virus, but apart from the fact that in most countries the current chaos makes it impossible accurately to determine this number, it is largely irrelevant in terms of the overall health impacts of the pandemic.

The most basic indicator that matters is the all-cause mortality rate (age-adjusted or not, and both figures should be presented), and the inequalities in this indicator amongst various age, class, gender, race/ethnicity and regional demographics. Over time, all-cause mortality rates will reflect not only the short-term health system dislocations and dysfunctions associated with the pandemic, but also the longer-term impacts on social determinants of health of the depression that will follow the lockdown. In a few years, those of us still alive will be able to compare the effectiveness of various national responses … and to restate a point it is all-cause mortality, and not the number of deaths directly attributable to Covid-19 or among people tested positive, that matters. Dead is dead, whatever the cause.

2.  In the UK, I continue to be baffled by the utter lack of comprehension among people professing a concern for equity of what economic downturns of the magnitude now apparently envisioned by Treasury – and of course these anticipations are all dependent on the assumed length of the lockdown, the nature of the exit strategy, and the economy’s subsequent response – will mean for everyday life and for the economic substrates of health inequalities.  The cynical me suspects that most people in a position to prognosticate with anyone paying attention have gardens and can comfortably work from home, unlike much of the rest of the population.

Let me suggest just one example of probable impacts:

Concern about the fate of high street commerce has long been unmatched by meaningful policy response.  Mr. and Mrs. Range Rover, who matter most in political terms, usually shop online or in the suburbs.   Post-pandemic, for hard financial reasons, it is likely that local authorities will simply cease providing services to low-occupancy commercial high streets, and utilities will be released from whatever obligations they have to provide services in those areas.  There will be few users, and fewer still who are able to pay their bills or council taxes. 

A fantasy?  Not at all.  A variant of this policy was partially adopted as “planned shrinkage” in New York City in the 1980s, and much more recently in post-bankruptcy Detroit.  There will be no-go high street wastelands of abandonment, at least until some far distant future when they will become attractive for reinvestment (beyond the lifetimes of many of us).

Alternatives can be imagined, in abundance (and will be the topic of a future post), but it is hard to think that any UK government will pursue them in the near future, especially as the country’s post-pandemic economic policy may well be managed jointly by the International Monetary Fund, as gatekeeper, and China, as the only external actor with the resources necessary to provide direct investment on the scale necessary.

3.  Even if the UK’s post-Brexit departure from the single market and customs union is delayed, as it should be, the full scope of the dislocations will become clear at the start of next winter, when it becomes clear how many Britons simply cannot afford to heat their homes.  Watch the all-cause mortality rate carefully as that happens. 

This post was updated on 15 April.

Why no talk of an inequality emergency?

We hear much talk now of a climate emergency.  As I was revising a talk I give frequently on ‘global health in an unequal world’, I realised that there is no talk of an inequality emergency, either globally or close to home, although the same macroeconomic trends and political choices driving increased inequality within national borders and on a variety of smaller scales are often involved wherever on the map one happens to look.  (On these inequalities at metropolitan scale, I cannot recommend too highly photographer Johnny Miller’s compelling aerial images.)

Why is there no talk of such an emergency?  Many manifestations of climate change occur on a scale that makes them fodder for our spectacle-hungry visual media: think Californian and Australian wildfires; collapsing glaciers; and catastrophic damage from hurricanes and floods.  The casualties of inequality tend to be smaller in scale and less visible: the lives ended sooner and more painfully than they should have been because of the accumulated damage done by relying on food banks and fearing the ‘brown envelope’ that initiates the vicious privatised process of fitness-for-work assessments here in the UK, or the estimated 300,000 women per year who die in pregnancy or childbirth from causes that are routinely avoided in the high-income world.   Academically, it may be effective to compare the annual toll from death in pregnancy and childbirth to the crash of two or three airliners every day of the year, as a colleague and I have done, but such comparisons have little salience in the broader, media-corrupted world of political priorities.

Relatively vast resources have been devoted to climate science – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the world’s largest-ever scientific collaboration – and climate researchers  long ago realised that just generating more evidence was never going to be enough to generate the change needed.   So many became advocates, for example tracing 63 percent of cumulative worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide and methane between 1751 and 2010 to just 90 massive state- and investor-owned corporations (and their customers, of course).  More recently, another group of authors (supported by more than 11,000 signatories) argued that ‘Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat’.  Researchers on health inequalities, in particular, have generally been more circumspect.  In the UK, advocacy that looks far enough ‘upstream’ at the economic and political substrates of health inequalities – more on that point later – is unlikely to be acceptable to agencies of the capitalist state and the trustees of billionaires’ fortunes whose funding priorities shape the direction of academic research and the career paths of academics.  And the health inequalities of greatest concern, by definition, do not affect ‘all of us’.  Whether the consequences of climate change will genuinely do so is too complex a question to be investigated here, but the question is well worth asking.  Certainly, its effects will be felt first and worst by those least implicated in its origins.

Another issue is the decades-long rhetorical and ideological Thatcherite drumbeat that ‘there is no alternative’ to rising inequality and the policies that drive it.  This problem is particularly acute with regard to the austerity that has been thoroughly discredited in terms of the macroeconomic objectives of sustaining growth that it was supposed to achieve, whether in the era of World Bank and IMF-mandated structural adjustment or, more recently, in post-2010 responses to the financial crisis.  As Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman commented in the run-up to the 2015 UK election: ‘All of the economic research that allegedly supported the austerity push has been discredited. On the other side of the ledger, the benefits of improved confidence failed to make their promised appearance. Since the global turn to austerity in 2010, every country that introduced significant austerity has seen its economy suffer, with the depth of the suffering closely related to the harshness of the austerity’.  Post-2015, of course, austerity in the UK became harsher still, demonstrably redistributing income and resources upward within British society, through both tax and benefit ‘reforms’ and savagely destructive cuts to local authority budgets.

Now, austerity has become normalised; it is part of the quotidian policy landscape to the extent that we are almost no longer capable of rage when the strutting, glossy Home Secretary straightfacedly claims that poverty is not the government’s problem, when the evidence is overwhelming that post-2010 public policy has systematically and premeditatedly made the problem worse.  Despite the best efforts of the fossil fuel industry, we can imagine a decarbonised economy, even though we may not be able to specify its details.  Too many of us now have difficulty imagining economic systems that do not operate as what Serge Halimi, the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, has called an ‘inequality machine’.  A powerful antidote to this well-funded intellectual cauterisation is the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s 2017 blueprint for a global new deal.  How many global health researchers have read it, I wonder?  How many medical or MPH students have been asked to do so?

Back to the view looking upstream.  Failure to understand and declare an inequality emergency reflects the success of neoliberalism or ‘market fundamentalism’ as a global class project of restoring inequality and the privileges of the rich to the levels that prevailed before what has been called the ‘great compression’ that reduced inequality after World War II in much of the high-income world, and inspired egalitarian visions far outside it.  The evidence on this point can’t even be summarised here – I am glad to provide key sources – but in the context of the work that academics do, two decades of marketisation in British universities must be understood as part of the project.  Centrally funded institutions that served a public educational and scholarly purpose were dismantled, replaced by corporate-style enterprises organised around generating income from deep-pocketed funders and indebted students, with careers often ended by failure to put out salable products.   

Isn’t this a form of conspiracy theory, you ask?  Empirically, the best rejoinders come from the work of journalists like Jane Mayer and historians like Stefan Collini and Nancy MacLean.  Conceptually, an especially apposite riposte comes from the brilliant legal historian Douglas Hay, who established himself in the field with the research that underpinned the following conclusion: ‘The private manipulation of the law by the wealthy and powerful’ in eighteenth-century England ‘was in truth a ruling-class conspiracy, in the most exact meaning of the word. …. The legal definition of conspiracy does not require explicit agreement; those party to it need not even all know one another, provided they are working together for the same ends.  In this case, the common assumptions of the conspirators lay so deep that they were never questioned, and rarely made explicit’ (1).  Enough said.

(1)  Hay, D.  Property, Authority, and the Criminal Law. In D. Hay et al., Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (pp. 17-64). New York: Pantheon, 1975,