The corona crisis, on top of so many others, shows how lethal capitalism is. Poverty and racism are the pre-existing conditions that inflate the rates of death and disability. For billions of people around the world, this disaster continues the misery at the hands of the 1%. It hopefully wakes up other people to the inequalities, negligence, and outright murder of global capitalism.
How has public health responded to such inequities and pandemics? What can we learn from previous infectious disease outbreaks caused by smallpox, TB, and cholera? When public health is good, it is very good, but when it is bad, many people die. When public health gets ugly, it destroys our lives and future security and aspirations.
Public health today operationalizes the prevailing political ideology: personal responsibility, the philosophy that individuals make decisions about what to eat, where to live, how to work, or whether to graduate, and then pay the consequences. Public health has blamed the individual for poor health habits and focused on educating people rather than dealing with systemic issues. Even now, when many talk about social determinants of disease, such as housing, racist police violence, immigration policy, and employment, actual interventions still focus on individual behavior.
This article identifies some of the qualities of successful and failed attempts to control epidemics with examples from selected countries since the late 19th Century.
On August 16, 1819, 60,000 men, women, and children gathered in St. Peter’s Field in the heavily industrial city of Manchester, England to demand political representation and better living conditions. It was the most massive assembly to have taken place at the time, amounting to roughly half the population of Manchester. Wearing their Sunday best and accompanied by musicians, they carried banners and signs calling for liberty, a parliament of the people and repeal of the Corn Laws. It was a peaceful, celebratory, yet emphatic crowd: little did they expect the brutal response of their “own” government. However, the ruling class was terrified of insurrection that would topple them from power, as had the French Revolution 30 years earlier. No sooner had the speeches begun than the rulers sent in the British cavalry, backed up by local volunteer militias, to strike them down, disperse the crowd, and arrest the leaders. The sabre-wielding forces wantonly murdered 18 men, women, and children, and injured 650. This pivotal incident became known as the Peterloo Massacre, and this year marks its bicentenary.
As Mike Leigh, director of the film, Peterloo, writes about its continuing significance:“Despite the spread of universal suffrage across large parts of the globe, poverty, inequality, suppression of press freedom, indiscriminate surveillance, and attacks on legitimate protest by brutal regimes are all on the rise… Peterloo is of seminal importance.” This article looks back on the events of 1819 and the lessons they hold for us today. It draws on the book, Peterloo by Jacqueline Riding and the film by Mike Leigh, as well as the contemporaneous commentary of several leaders and participants.
“The wealth of this country should be equally distributed … if one man through shrewdness should then amass more wealth than his neighbor, his surplus should be taken away from him. Every man should carry arms and have the right of self-defense. Shops and means of transit should be free. There would be no need of elections, police or standing army… Every man should bring his products to an immense clearinghouse in each city or town, and every family to receive an equal portion.” Lucy Parsons, 1891. The life of Lucy Parsons holds many lessons for the working class and students today, especially since we recently witnessed a polarizing election, increased xenophobia, and racist, anti-Semitic murders. Lucy gained fame as the widow of Albert Parsons, the labor leader and anarchist whom the city of Chicago executed for his role in the fight for the 8 hour day in 1887. Known as the Haymarket Massacre, cops threw a bomb into the crowd that killed 7 policemen and blamed the deaths on the anarchist and socialist leaders, including Albert. May Day, the international workers’ day, commemorates this event. Lucy spent her life celebrating her husband’s and her political ideas. Today she is honored as a revolutionary leader in her own right. Continue reading “Lucy Parsons, Working Class Anarchist”
Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram Kendi is indeed, as it claims to be, a very complete history of the origin and practice of anti-black racism in the United States. The story begins with the development of racist ideas of African inferiority as the rationale for the capture and brutalization of Africans for enslavement by the Portugese in the 1400s. The author then traces the history of the importation of these racist ideas to the Americas to justify slavery and the continuation of discrimination to this day. Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: STAMPED FROM THE BEGINNING”