Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

The pandemic is once again spiraling out of control. Right-wing commentators and political leaders are doing everything they can to stop any kind of effective public-health response and to divert attention from the severity of the pandemic. And liberals? The best they can come up with is “follow the science.”

Jay S. Kaufman, a professor of epidemiology at McGill University, is having none of it. He rejects that simple—and too simplistic—mantra because it “misses the fact that the same social pathology that exacerbates the pandemic also debilitates our scientific response to it.

The problem is, Kaufman pulls his punches and limits the reach of both arguments. He notes that the pandemic itself is “socially patterned” but then he refers only to excess deaths across countries (such as Peru, Bolivia, South Africa and Brazil), which in his view are tied to political turmoil and weak social institutions. What he forgets about or overlooks is the fact that the severity of infections and deaths with countries is closely related to economic inequality and poorly functioning public institutions. In other words, the people who have suffered most from the pandemic are those who are forced to have the freedom to work at jobs and live in communities where they are more likely to be infected by COVID-19 and where adequate medical care is unavailable, either because it is not provided or is financially unattainable.

As for the second argument, that “science itself is a social process,” he’s right to note that “epidemiologists exist like everyone else inside the social forces that shape the pandemic.” But he’s really only referring to the step from “evidence to policy,” to the “politicization of proven interventions” (for example, under the Trump administration), not the process of gathering and analyzing the evidence itself. Thus, he never questions the science itself. Kaufman seems to be uninterested in or incapable of posing questions about what scientists decided were the basic issues to be investigated in terms of the emergence and transmission of the novel coronavirus, especially the ways the pandemic has both revealed and compounded pre-existing inequalities in wealth, income, and race.

The alternative was, in fact, staring him in the face. Kaufman begins his essay by invoking Rudolf Virchow, the Prussian pathologist who, in the winter of 1848, was sent to investigate a typhus epidemic raging in Upper Silesia, in what is now mostly Poland. As Kaufman explains,

After three weeks of meticulous observation of the stricken populace — during which he carefully counted typhus cases and deaths by age, sex, occupation and social class — he returned with a 190-page report that ultimately blamed poverty and social exclusion for the epidemic and deemed it an unnecessary crisis. “I am convinced that if you changed these conditions, the epidemic would not recur,” he wrote.

Today, Virchow is known as the “father of modern pathology” and as the founder of social medicine. He developed the theory of cellular pathology, which laid the conceptual foundation for modern medicine. But he also had a specific notion of medicine, which is today mostly ignored. In his own words:

Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale. Medicine, as a social science, as the science of human beings, has the obligation to point out problems and to attempt their theoretical solution: the politician, the practical anthropologist, must find the means for their actual solution. . .Science for its own sake usually means nothing more than science for the sake of the people who happen to be pursuing it. Knowledge which is unable to support action is not genuine—and how unsure is activity without understanding. . .If medicine is to fulfill her great task, then she must enter the political and social life. . .The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and the social problems should largely be solved by them.

Not only did Virchow conclude, based on his research, that poor sanitation, the absence of basic hygiene, lack of education, and near starvation were the root problems of the epidemic in Upper Silesia. According to David M. Reese, “a few weeks after his Silesian expedition, Virchow manned the barricades beside fellow democrats, armed with a rusty sword and an antiquated rifle.” Following on his participation in the revolution of 1848, Virchow continued to be active in politics: he was soon elected representative to a newly formed Prussian diet, “delivering fiery speeches against the royal family”; in the late 1850s, he was elected Berlin City Councillor, an office in which he served for 42 years (“his achievements ranging from improving the city’s sewer and water supply systems to reforming the arrangement of public hospitals” so that all citizens would have access to basic medical care); and he was a founding member of the German Progress Party, the main left-wing party before the rise of the Social Democrats.

The fact is, more than 170 years ago, Virchow established a practice of both scientific social medicine and politically committed scientist that gives lie to the notion of just “follow the science.” The question, then as now, is: which science?

In the midst of a sick society characterized by sick institutions, we need to critically examine both the economic and social institutions that have generated the profoundly unequal effects of the present pandemic as well as the specific ways scientific methods and protocols have been conditioned by those same institutions.

U.S. billionaires have recouped all of their wealth—and more—during the Pandemic Depression. Meanwhile, since May, the number of poor Americans has grown by about 8 million. And the number of American workers applying for and receiving unemployment benefits continues at record levels.

According to Forbes,

Pandemic be damned: America’s 400 richest are worth a record $3.2 trillion, up $240 billion from a year ago, aided by a stock market that has defied the virus. 

When the Covid-19 pandemic began to sweep the world earlier this year, the wealth of U.S. billionaires plummeted in lockstep with the stock market. Yet, just six months after the market bottomed out—with hundreds of thousands Americans dead and the coronavirus still to be contained—the wealthiest Americans are doing better than ever. In other words, the pain, at least for the ultra-rich, was remarkably short lived.

Meanwhile, more and more American workers, who have lost their jobs or been furloughed, are attempting to survive on meager unemployment benefits. And many of them and their families—especially Black people and children—are now falling below the poverty line.

Part of the reason for this obscene growth in poverty is the expiration of the CARES Act’s $600 per week unemployment supplement. The other reason is that the number of American workers who are applying for unemployment benefits continues at elevated levels.

This morning, the U.S. Department of Labor (pdf) reported that, during the week ending last Saturday, another 898 thousand American workers filed initial claims for unemployment compensation. While initial unemployment claims remain well below the peak of about seven million in March, they are far higher than pre-pandemic levels of about 200 thousand claims a week.

The number of continued claims for unemployment compensation, while also below its peak, was still more than 25 million workers—a figure that includes workers receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.*

To put this number in perspective, consider the fact that the highest number of continued claims for unemployment compensation during the Second Great Depression was 6.6 million (at the end of May 2009), and in the week before the Pandemic Depression began there were only 1.6 million continued claims.

In the meantime, at least 1,011 new coronavirus deaths and 59,751 new cases were reported in the United States yesterday. As of this afternoon, more than 7.9 million Americans have been infected with the coronavirus and at least 217.1 thousand have died—more than any other country in the world, grotesque outcomes that continue to receive barely a mention from Trump or anyone (aside from Dr. Anthony Fauci) in his administration.

Meanwhile, many colleges and universities that have attempted to reopen with students in residence are reporting hundreds of (and, in some cases, more than a thousand) novel coronavirus infections.

The result will be new waves of business slowdowns and closures, which in turn will mean millions more U.S. workers furloughed and laid off. Unless there is a radical change in economic policies and institutions, Americans can expect to see steady streams of new COVID-19 infections and deaths, initial and continued unemployment claims, and growing poverty in the weeks and months ahead.

As for those at the top: during the first six months of the pandemic, the United States added more than 29 more billionaires, increasing from 614 to 643. The Pandemic Depression has been a boon to their fortunes.

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*This is the special program for business owners, the self-employed, independent contractors, and gig workers not receiving other unemployment insurance.

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How many of you read Car and Driver magazine?

Not many of you, I presume. But maybe you should. At least the June 2020 issue.

It’s certainly a sign of our obscenely unequal times that a magazine better known for its reviews of foreign supercars and domestic muscle cars and for an editorial policy that courts controversy only when it attacks SUVs (in favor of minivans and cars) highlights the story of Oliver, Jason M. Vaughn’s family’s 260,000-mile Subaru in a piece subtitled “The Fear of Failure.”

Turning the key has become an act of faith. As the engine grumbles to life on this fine southwest Colorado morning, the yellow check-engine light comes on, as it has every day for the past four years, and the same questions swirl in my mind. Is this the day that tiny head-gasket leak turns into a gusher? Is this the day the catalytic converter chokes closed for good? Is this the day that one speck of sand too many works its way into that cracked CV-joint boot, causing it to seize up at some bend in the road and send me spinning into a ravine, not to be discovered until spring?. . .

I intimately know everything wrong with this car. I feel the squishy brakes and the engine straining to get up a hill, and I hear the ominous grinding sounds coming from under the right-front wheel well. But I can’t afford to do anything to ward off those looming disasters.

That’s because Vaughn’s family is like many American households, who don’t have any emergency savings and therefore can’t cover a surprise $400 expense without borrowing money or selling something. Or they can’t come up with the money at all.

Oliver, purchased new in 2004, is also like many other cars on U.S. roads, in being old (at 11.8 years old, the average age of the 278 million vehicles on American highways has never been higher). One reason is because

many Americans—in a time of stagnant wages combined with soaring consumer debt and a high cost of living—can’t afford to replace their old beaters. Or if they can get another vehicle, they’re only able to replace it with another beater.

As for Vaughn, he and his wife were both laid off from their respective, “and not very lucrative jobs,” last year and they can’t afford to keep up on the current maintenance, much less fix all the stuff on the car they’ve been putting off.

That’s why Vaughn identifies so much with Linda Tirado, the author of the 2014 book, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, an account of what it’s like, day after day, to work, eat, shop, raise kids, and keep a roof over your head without enough money. One of the lessons Vaughn highlights is the predicament of the poor working-class:

One of the hardest ironies of all for the working poor is the often unspoken truth that in America, you usually have to already have money to even get an opportunity to make money. And simply moving someplace with better jobs and higher pay isn’t really an option when you’re broke.

To keep Oliver running, Vaughn has taught himself some basic maintenance and repairs (via YouTube videos, of course) and resorted to cheap fixes that betray “more than a twinge of desperation”—all in the hope that the Subaru can last another 100,000 miles. The fact is,

We’ll probably need another 100,000 miles out of Oliver whether we can properly care for him or not.

That makes a lot of sense. It’s exactly the predicament more and more working-class drivers and their cars find themselves in as economic inequality, already grotesque, continues to soar in the United States.

Clearly the problem of inequality is so serious and so widespread that it has forced its way into a Hearst-owned automotive enthusiast magazine, squeezed between articles on the new Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 (price as tested: $118,600) and a golden-wheeled, Kar Tunz-modified Lamborghini Urus (price: $277,904).

Now, tell me, is there a better illustration of what life is like in the United States in the age of inequality?

 

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