Let’s not deceive ourselves by blaming just the pandemic

Livemint, May 28, 2021

By Pradeep S. Mehta,

It’s incorrect to blame the carnage all around us on the covid pandemic alone. It is our failure to prepare for such crises despite the knowledge that they will recur that is chiefly at fault.

History teaches us that like death and taxes, pandemics are also certain. Tragically, many don’t learn. How well we manage them depends on our preparation. Pandemics stress-test our health infrastructure, but also our assumptions of administrative efficiencies and growth models, and the status of equality and poverty.

As witnessed in India, such deficiencies across sectors have been bundled and thrown at us like a challenge to be dealt with together. It’s easy but incorrect to blame the pandemic alone for the carnage, and not our inherent inefficiencies, which we have either chosen to ignore or presumed to have addressed.

Joseph Goldberger, an American epidemiologist, advocated the scientific and social recognition of links between poverty and epidemics. In 1915, he highlighted the importance of a healthy diet in recovery from a pellagra epidemic. However, Goldberger faced extreme resistance from political leaders who refused to believe that the epidemic was linked to widespread poverty and unhealthy diets. Years later, he was recognized as a pioneer in the field. This points to inter-linkages of public health and economic policies.

In this regard, those who presume urbanization to be a road to salvation may like to read noted historian R.J. Evans’ 1987 book Death in Hamburg. It dealt with society and politics during a cholera pandemic, which killed nearly 10,000 people in six weeks in the German city. He held a lack of effective public-health policy and miserable living conditions of the urban poor responsible for the tragedy. Evans highlighted the major role played by a failure to supply clean water, fresh air and hygienic food. Thus, our claims linking urbanization to economic growth may need to be revisited.

In the West, epidemics have prompted long-term public health responses aimed at improving sewerage, water supply and garbage-disposal systems. Like trickle-down economics, it is usually presumed that such measures will eventually benefit the poor.

However, as in economics, trickle-down health seems to be a myth, and the benefits are captured mostly by the elite. That covid is disproportionately impacting people of colour and the poor in rich countries flies in the face of their sustainable development claims. Those of us blindly promoting Western development models need a rethink.

Pandemics have also had a huge impact on the powers of governments in maintaining law and order. Governments often seize excessive discretionary power in imposing quarantines and forcing themselves into homes on the pretext of stopping a pandemic’s spread. In 1875, the Public Health Act of the UK mandated local councils to employ inspectors to enforce strict laws. In 1890, its Housing of the Working Classes Act allowed councils to demolish overcrowded and dirty slums, presumably without making alternate housing provisions. The British made similar laws for India, including the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, which is still in force.

J.W. Leavitt and L.A. Leavitt, professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US, argue that such laws were often used arbitrarily and disproportionately against the poor. They point out that during a smallpox epidemic in Milwaukee in 1894, health officials forcibly seized children from their mothers in immigrant neighbourhoods, but allowed middle-class, native-born families to tend to their sick children in their homes. Indian states and its federal government have also liberally used powers to impose quarantines without considering the fate of the poor.

In addition, embargos on trade, economic activities and employment have been common measures to prevent the spread of pandemics. As evident from the suffering of migrant workers, these disproportionately impact the poor. Historian Cindy Ermus, as part of her ongoing book project on the Plague of Provence in 1720, highlights that during the plague, the rich, alarmed by the danger of infection, fled the infected areas, which resulted in a stoppage of trade and employment, thus cutting off the means of sustenance for the poor. This reduced thousands of families to misery.

Unfortunately, the economic adversities faced by the poor find only footnotesque mentions in pandemic studies. While a 2007 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis on Economic Effects of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic highlights a few case studies of merchants indicating a decline in business of 40-70%, a 50% decrease in coal-mine production, and service and entertainment businesses suffering double-digit losses, it concludes that most of these effects on the economy were ‘short term’ in nature. Such studies disregard the long-term impact on widening inequities and injustices.

Many in India have spotted ‘green-shoots’ of an economic recovery, but any celebration of this does injustice to the idea of India and the spirit of fraternity that our citizens have shown in fighting the pandemic after leaders all but abandoned people to their fate. Laura Spinney, in Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, speaks of similar cooperation among Indians during that flu; it contributed to resistance and the cause of independence from misrule.

History often repeats itself, and our leaders will only have themselves to blame, and not the pandemic, should they fail to identify and address the structural deficiencies that make pandemics so difficult to bear for the poor.

Amol Kulkarni of CUTS contributed to this article.

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