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Commentary :: Human Rights : Race : Social Welfare
Hurricane Katrina: further evidence that imperialism is a public health disaster
06 Sep 2005
An article in the December 2004 issue of the American Journal of Public Health shows that almost nine hundred thousand deaths of Black people could have been prevented between 1991-2000 had Blacks had the same health care and other conditions as Euro-Amerikans.
An article in the December 2004 issue of the American Journal of Public Health shows that almost nine hundred thousand deaths of Black people could have been prevented between 1991-2000 had Blacks had the same health care and other conditions as Euro-Amerikans.(1) In fact, the article's authors find that eliminating the disparity in death rates between blacks and whites can save more lives than developing better drugs among other things. This is just one small piece of the national oppression-related disparity in care that exists in the Amerikan health system and under imperialism in the united $tates. And this is a reminder that no one should be surprised that Blacks in New Orleans are disproportionately affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Public health is the field of study that focuses on the health of the public in general, as opposed to individual medical care. As a field of study, public health leans towards materialist politics by considering groups of people rather than thinking about individuals and their illnesses in isolation from what caused them in the long run. In New Orleans, many people are now calling the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina a "public health disaster" because of the long delay in getting aid to those stranded, leading to likely virulent outbreaks of contagious and infectious diseases. The standing water is a breeding ground for these diseases. And the dehydration caused by many days without drinkable water, lack of sanitary facilities, and inadequate food and medical care, only compound the problem.

Many "experts" are being quoted in mainstream media comparing the situation in New Orleans with the Third World. This is an important comparison (even though others are using "Third World"-like conditions as a pretext for the military repression of so-called looters). Among the reasons people think Amerika should not look like the Third World is the health care system in the united $tates. Irrational as private medical care is, with all the wealth in the United $tates, Amerikan citizens receive much better health care than Third World countries with few exceptions—such as Cuba, which recently offered to send the Henry Reeve Brigade consisting of more than 1,500 doctors to the united $tates to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, but has so far been ignored by arrogant u.$. authorities who apparently would rather see more Black people die than accept help from a supposedly socialist country.(2)

About two-fifths of the world's population lives in "high-mortality" Third World countries. According to the World Health Organization, "[a]bout one-sixth of the entire disease burden in these countries is attributed to underweight, with a substantial additional proportion attributable to micronutrient deficiencies. The burden resulting from these risks alone approaches that of the entire disease and injury burden in industrialized countries."(3) In addition, unsafe water accounts for about 5% of the disease burden in these countries. Overall in the Third World, the top six leading health risks are: underweight, unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene, indoor smoke from solid fuels, and unsafe sex. This is contrasted to First World countries where alcohol, blood pressure, overweight, cholesterol and tobacco are the leading risks to health.(3)

The differences in health are illustrated most starkly in the avoidable deaths statistics. "Underweight," meaning insufficient food and nutrition, accounts for more than three million childhood deaths each year in Third World countries. According to the WHO, "[a]t the same time that there are 170 million children in poor countries who are underweight—and over three million of them die each year as a result—there are more than one billion adults worldwide who are overweight and at least 300 million who are clinically obese. Among these, about half a million people in North America and Western Europe die from obesity-related diseases every year."(3) So, in the Third World we see people dying from lack of sufficient food, and in the wealthiest imperialist countries we see people dying literally from too much food.

And it is this contrast that explains the focus of the Amerikan medical system and the focus on developing better treatments instead of eliminating disparities in treatment: Amerikans have the luxury of care for cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and cancer, because people live long enough to develop these problems, and many people live decadently enough to cause these problems. (But we also cannot ignore the relatively poor, mostly oppressed-nation people in Amerika who suffer from malnutrition because of "overconsumption" of cheap fast food, yet another expression of national oppression.)

Furthermore, on the question of sanitation, the WHO states: "About 1.7 million deaths a year worldwide are attributed to unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene, mainly through infectious diarrhoea. Nine out of ten such deaths are in children, and virtually all of the deaths are in developing countries."(3) This is exactly why conditions in New Orleans looked like the Third World. Nowhere in the united $tates or other imperialist countries today do we have an example of such dangerous unsanitary conditions.

In New Orleans the public health problems arose in large part because some people did not have the money or other resources to get out of the city before the hurricane struck. This is not a "natural" disaster; this is a known (not just predictable, but also ongoing) and avoidable disaster. Just like the people in Third World countries dying from preventable lack of food and unsanitary conditions, and being concentrated in low-lying areas prone to flooding, many Black people in New Orleans have died from similar causes. We won't know the true number for quite a while, and it is unlikely that Amerikan officials will give an honest assessment of the causes of death for those whose deaths could have been easily prevented. (This is probably one side effect of various commentators' discouraging people from talking about "race" and class issues in the immediate aftermath of Katrina and telling them to just focus on helping "Americans." The opportunity to accurately keep track of refugees' characteristics may have been lost.)

We know that 1.7 million deaths a year could be prevented with a small investment in clean water and sanitation systems. We know that three million deaths a year could be prevented with a more equitable distribution of the food currently grown in the world. And we know that the deaths of many of the Black in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina could have been prevented. All of these come down to priorities in public health and distribution of resources. Medical care professionals are reporting that government bureaucracy is stopping them from helping people in need of care. Both individual doctors and entire hospitals are unable to find their way through the government mess.(4)

The real solution to the public health problems in New Orleans and around the world is getting rid of governments whose first priority is profit rather than serving the people. Capitalism has proven itself a global failure, and for oppressed nations, both within U.$. borders and around the world, it is a catastrophic failure that adds up to millions of deaths each year. The only logical solution is a system that puts the needs of the world's people first. The urgency of ending the imperialist system and having proletarian leadership is starkly evident in the numbers of easily preventable deaths each year.


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Notes

1. Steven H. Woolf et al., "The Health Impact of Resolving Racial Disparities: An Analysis of US Mortality Data," American Journal of Public Health 94, no. 12 (2004): 2078-2081.

"Need to correct racial disparities in health," 8 December 2004, http://www.news-medical.net/?id=6783

2. Lucia Newman, "Castro: U.S. hasn't responded to Katrina offer," 5 September 2005, http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/americas/09/05/katrina.cuba/index.html

3. World Health Organization, World Health Report 2002 : Reducing Risks, Promoting Healthy Life, http://www.who.int/whr/2002/en/

4. Robin Wallace, "At Shelters, Katrina health crisis continues," 5 September 2005, http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,168519,00.html
See also:
http://mimnotes.info/news/20050905hurricanekatrina/
http://mimnotes.info/

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Re: Hurricane Katrina: further evidence that imperialism is a public health disaster
09 Sep 2005
I bet MaRK posted this.