Thursday, February 12, 2004

Here's another disease-related item. This one is from Mike Davis, author of among other things City of Quartz, maybe the best book ever written about Los Angeles. The spread of disease highlights the network-ness of human relationships. Human beings are the nodes, the links are the contacts through which pathogens spread (the proximity to sneezes, sexual contacts, shared items, etc -- all mediated social connections). As Mike D.'s article shows, there is a definite class-dimension to the nature of the network.

A Deadly Plague of Slums

Here are some excerpts:

"Mass death soon may be coming to a neighborhood near you, and the Department of Homeland Security will be helpless to prevent it. The terrorist in this case will be a mutant offspring of influenza A subtype H5N1: the explosively spreading avian virus that the World Health Organization (WHO) worries will be the progenitor of a deadly global plague.


"But a true pandemic would probably overwhelm the world long before a vaccine could be developed and produced in large quantities. The potential accelerators of a new plague are the huge slums of Asia and Africa. Concentrated poverty, indeed, is one of the most important variables in any model of how a pandemic might grow.

"The bustees of Kolkata, the chawls of Mumbai, the kampungs of Jakarta, or the katchi abadis of Karachi are, from an epidemiological standpoint, landscapes saturated in gasoline, only awaiting an errant spark like H5N1. (Twenty million or more of the deaths in 1918-19 were in poor, congested and recently famished parts of British India.)


"During the debt crisis of the 1980s, the IMF, backed by the Reagan and Bush administrations, forced most of the third world to downsize public employment, devalue currencies and open their domestic markets to imports. The results everywhere were an explosion of urban poverty and sharp fall-offs in public services.

"A principal target of IMF austerity programs has been urban public health. In Zaire and Ghana, for instance, "structural adjustment" meant the laying off of tens of thousands of public health workers and doctors. Similarly in Kenya and Zimbabwe, implementation of IMF demands led to huge fall-offs in healthcare coverage and spending.


"Thanks to global neo-liberalism, then, disease surveillance and epidemic response are weakest precisely where they are most important: in the mega-slums of Asia and Africa. That's where the brushfire of H5N1 could turn into a deadly biological firestorm.

"In that event, it would consume more than just the poor. Once a new pandemic had acquired the momentum of mass mortality in Asia it would inexorably spread to North America and Europe. It would easily climb the walls of gated communities and other fortresses of privilege.

"Here, of course, is the rub. In the past, the rich countries, with few exceptions, have shown callous indifference to the monstrous human toll of AIDs in Africa or of the two million poor children annually claimed by malaria. H5N1 may be our unexpected reward. "