Natural disasters?

Jackson, the small capital city of the US state of Mississippi, is at this writing (4 September) without safe drinking water, and has only intermittent supplies of piped water of any quality.  Unfortunately, much of the best media coverage of this humanitarian emergency, in outlets like the Washington Post and The New York Times, appears to be paywalled, although readers with a university affiliation should be able to access it through Nexis.  (BBC News, which finds investigative journalism easier outside the UK, is a notable exception.)  The proximate cause is flooding of the Pearl River, which has disabled the city’s water treatment plant.  However, the New York Times’ coverage sums up the deeper problem of politically driven infrastructure neglect, one all too familiar in US cities: ‘For decades, the city’s population has been shrinking, an exodus propelled in large part by the flight of white residents — along with their tax dollars — to surrounding affluent suburbs where, by and large, the water on Tuesday was flowing just fine.’

Jackson’s situation brings to mind the title of what I think is still the best book on the politics of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, although numerous later journal articles provide added perspective: There Is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster.  The same analytical point was made several years pre-Katrina by sociologist Eric Klinenberg, in a ‘social autopsy’ of the 1995 Chicago heat wave in which people in the city’s poorest and most African-American neighbourhoods, unable to afford air conditioning, barricaded themselves in their flats while an indifferent and under-resourced city government did not respond adequately.  Water quality and availability crises are in fact becoming all too routine in US cities, as pointed out in a superb 2019 doctoral thesis by anthropologist Nadia Gaber and a special issue of the journal Critical Sociology on the multi-year water crisis in deindustrialised Flint, Michigan.   

Although some such disasters may be triggered by extreme weather events, they are not in any meaningful sense natural.  Rather, they are traceable directly to the hegemony of neoliberal ideas and associated urban austerity – and, in the US case, to a history of systemic racism that goes back literally centuries.  Since such weather events are likely to occur with increasing frequency as the planet’s climate changes, it is worth reflecting carefully on what these observations mean for health inequalities.  For example, they not only add to the already formidable health case against austerity but also would appear to bolster the arguments for climate reparations, not only across national borders but also within them. Observer columnist Kenan Malik notes a broader pattern of purposive reductions in the capacity of states to help those they rule, tracing this (correctly in my view) to the infamous 1975 Trilateral Commission report on The Crisis of Democracy. Here, again, the resulting humanitarian emergencies are not natural.  They are features, not bugs in the neoliberal vision of the world.  Facing a cost of living crisis and a probable prime minister who rails against “the lens of redistribution,” millions of people in the UK are going to experience the sharp, sometimes deadly edge of that vision during the coming winter.  

COVID-19, state desertion and neoliberal epidemics

In these times of plague, at least as they are categorised by some, spilling more digital ink on COVID-19 smacks of either hubris or irrelevance, and many others are better qualified than I to comment on the outbreak’s epidemiological dimensions – although, interestingly enough, they don’t always agree, and media are stretching the category of ‘scientists’. In keeping with the blog’s theme, here are a few equity-related observations.

1.  In some jurisdictions, the outbreak is a neoliberal epidemic – the term Clare Bambra and I coined in 2015 – for at least two reasons.  The first of these is the lack of access to paid sick leave for literally millions of low-wage US workers in retail, hospitality, and grocery sectors who either have no entitlement to paid sick leave or do not think they do, as reported by The New York Times.   Of course, in the real world, for workers without a strong union this ‘entitlement’ is really at the employer’s discretion, regardless of what the law says.  In the UK, the fusion of executive and legislative power gives the government of the day the ability to remedy the comparable problem instantly, if it chooses to do so.   Will it?

The current outbreak is also a neoliberal epidemic because of reliance on a profit-motivated pharmaceutical industry for vaccine development.  A recent journal article points out that this model for vaccine development has systematically hindered the development of vaccines for so-called neglected diseases; it may now be doing so with regard to COVID-19.  In a long and important piece in The Guardian on 27 March, US researcher Peter Hotez described ‘a broken ecosystem for making vaccines’, and claimed that he might have had a COVID-19 vaccine to offer today if his team had been able to find funding for a clinical trial based on their previous (2011-2016) research on SARS. If we take seriously the broadly shared view in political theory that the most basic prerequisite for political legitimacy is a government’s ability to protect its subjects against basic threats to life and security, then the development of scientific capacity for developing diagnostics and vaccines from basic research through to production and free, not-for-profit distribution should be regarded as a national security imperative for countries able to support such initiatives, and as a development assistance priority. Will this lesson be learnt from COVID-19?

2.  Focussing on the UK context, we are now seeing the consequences of a decade of austerity during which the NHS was starved for resources and the budgets of the local authorities that since 2012 have had statutory responsibility for public health have been gutted.  It remains to be seen whether the NHS will be able to cope, and how high the casualty count will be both among those infected with COVID-19 and those whose care needs are displaced by COVID-19 patients in intensive care units.  Rest assured, there will be casualties.  In the United States, journalist Laurie Garrett has been warning for decades about the dangers of neglecting domestic public health infrastructure.  In January of this year, she broke the important story that President Trump had disbanded the country’s pandemic response capability.  Some mainstream media, although by no means all, have since picked up the story.  Clearly, this was regarded as less important than covering promises of building big, beautiful walls to keep out threats originating in deranged racist imaginaries.  Our media in the UK, and what has passed for a political opposition over the past decade, have not done a whole lot better.

3.  At this writing, one UK proposal is to respond to the outbreak by isolating people over 70 in their homes for up to 16 weeks, ‘for their own protection’, which among other shortcomings defies every principle of natural justice.  At this writing, it is unclear how draconian the restrictions would be, but if they are implemented, then one wonders how many deaths of despair will result not from COVID-19 infection, but from that isolation in the context of a care infrastructure that is completely unable to provide necessary support – again, after a decade of austerity.

Over the longer term, the economic impacts of the pandemic may prove to magnify health inequalities in ways that are as yet impossible to predict.  For example, what happens if lengthy school closures result in job losses for parents choosing between work and leaving their children home alone?  What happens to literally millions of workers in (initially) the transport, hospitality and retail sectors as their jobs disappear? What happens if, or more probably when, equity market declines mean that defined-contribution pension plans across the high-income world collapse in value and defined-benefit plans can no longer meet their obligations and face insolvency?

It is possible to envision creative and progressive (as the term is used in public finance) policy responses to all these questions, and other related ones.  An International Monetary Fund researcher has called for ‘substantial targeted fiscal, monetary, and financial market measures to help affected households and businesses’ (author’s emphasis).  Whether such policies will prove to be politically viable domestically and internationally given the sums involved – realistically, into trillions of US dollars – and the desirability of strongly progressive finance mechanisms is quite another question.  Within their own borders, both the United States and the United Kingdom have in recent years systematically and intentionally magnified inequality and redistributed resources and opportunity upward within their social structures. Time will tell.

This post was selectively updated on 29 March; many aspects have now been overtaken by events.

Through the looking glass … in the spirit of Eduardo Galeano

The remarkable Uruguayan essayist and journalist Eduardo Galeano was a relentless dissector of what Serge Halimi of Le Monde Diplomatique has called ‘the inequality machine [that] is reshaping the planet’.  Here is an example, written about Caracas circa 1971.  Even before the 1973 quadrupling of oil prices, Venezuela’s oil production had made it one of the least poor economies in Latin America.  However, most of the revenues were extracted by transnational corporations like Exxon, Gulf Oil and Royal Dutch Shell, and what wealth remained in the country was highly concentrated.  ‘While the latest models flash like lightning down Caracas’s golden avenues’, wrote Galeano, ‘more than half a million people contemplate the wasteful extravagance of others from huts made of garbage’.  The relation between automobiles and social exclusion, both symbolically and by way of transport infrastructure choices that are literally cast in concrete, was a consistent theme in Galeano’s work.  ‘[T]he city is ruled by Mercedes-Benzes and Mustangs’, he wrote.  ‘In Caracas, enormous and expensive machines abound for producing pleasure or speed or sound or light. Like poor frightened ants we face these machines and wonder: “Jesus, is each of these really worth more than me?”’

This sounds like a rhetorical question, but decades later, it provides a useful window into twenty-first century inequalities.  At the start of this decade, the best available research suggests that the median household wealth of the UK population was around £80,000.  In other words, half of all UK households ‘were worth’ less than that.  A knowledgeable petrolhead can stand on a kerb in London, and many other major British cities, and in ten minutes or so point out numerous cars and SUVs that cost more than £80,000.  (Non-petrolhead readers who doubt this should pick up a copy of Evo or Octane at their local newsagent’s.)  So the answer to Galeano’s question, in the UK context, is clearly affirmative.  Such grounded comparisons arguably tell us more about the real world of inequality than abstractions like Gini coefficients.

Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America appeared in English in 1973, just before the US-supported coup d’état that turned Chile into a bloody showcase for neoliberal policies.  It was a text in the undergraduate development studies course that forever transformed my provincial outlook on world affairs.  I have been re-reading his more recent Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World, which appeared 20 years ago – and, chillingly, reminds us that a 1997 New York Times article praised the coup as beginning ‘Chile’s transformation from a backwater banana republic to the economic star of Latin America’.  The book swings between savagery and satire (on the media and Monica Lewinsky: ‘I think something else happened in 1998, but I can’t remember what’) and I find myself wondering how Galeano – who died in 2015 – would regard the era of Brexit, Trump, and a decade-long retreat from the always fragile institutions of democracy into the authoritarianism that repeatedly forced him into exile.   

He noted that Saudi Arabia’s role as one of the world’s largest customers for the arms trade appeared to confer immunity from criticism of its deplorable human rights record.  Plus ça change … Already, Galeano was concerned about the spread of surveillance. ‘Is there an eye hidden in the TV remote control?  Ears listening from the ashtray?’ What would he make of Alexa?  Or of the fact that it is possible to access detailed personal information about almost 300,000 people (contacts of contacts) through a single Facebook account, as the New York Times has shown, and few users seem to care?

Galeano memorably described globalisation as ‘a magic galleon that spirits factories away to poor countries’, noting that the resulting ‘[f]ear of unemployment allows a mockery to be made of labour rights.  The eight-hour day no longer belongs to the realm of law but to literature, where it shines among other works of surrealist poetry,’ as ‘the fruits of two centuries of labour struggles get raffled off before you can say good-bye’.  Here is one of several sobering reminders that key understandings of how the inequality machine operates were in place two decades (or more) ago; many social scientific advances since then involve refinement and body counting.

Galeano was similarly eloquent about  the dangers of finance capitalism, as it shifted power and accountability towards ‘the markets’ that often dictate terms to national governments, and spawned a proliferation of tax havens and obliging facilitators seeking to protect kleptocrats’ looted billions.  How would he now regard the revelations in the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers?  Or look back on the financial crisis starting in 2007 that turned into a US$14 trillion hostage taking that debilitated many national economies, ratcheted up inequality and created the political opening for the destructive post-2010 trajectory of UK austerity?  Galeano correctly notes that Margaret Thatcher ‘ran a dictatorship of finance capital in the British Isles’; this was the start of a rapid rise in inequality … but what would he make of Danny Dorling’s recent argument that the situation worsened on New Labour’s watch?  And how would he respond to an inequality in male life expectancy at birth in the small local authority of Stockton-on-Tees, where I live, that by 2015 was comparable to the difference in national averages between England and Tanzania?  This is another one of those important grounded comparisons.

The World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health reminded us a decade ago that health inequalities are underpinned by ‘the inequitable distribution of power, money and resources’.  Reducing those inequalities first of all demands speaking truth about power.  Galeano excelled at this, sometimes at considerable cost to his own safety; scathing description of the impunity enjoyed by the powerful was a consistent theme in his writing about Latin America, both during periods of dictatorship and after transitions to democracy.  He might have been pleased by today’s partly successful challenges to the massively corrupt Odebrecht combine , while simultaneously appalled by the failure to act on the continuing scandal of tax havens and by the alliance of big data and big money in the dissemination of disinformation and ‘fake news’ through social media.  This is a new form of coup d’état that social scientists are still learning to take seriously.

In these times of cynicism and resignation, the example of Eduardo Galeano’s courage and moral imagination is more valuable than ever.

Key references

Galeano, E. (1973; Spanish publication 1971).  Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent [tr. C. Belfrage].  New York: Monthly Review Press.

Galeano, E. (1992). We Say No: Chronicles 1963-1991 [tr. Mark Fried and others]. New York: W.W. Norton [this is the source for the Caracas description].

Galeano, E. (2000; Spanish publication 1998). Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World [tr. Mark Fried]. New York: Picador.