Parasites Among the Poor and the Plutocrats

Hookworm rates in parts of the United States have reached the levels seen in developing countries.

This was a major problem in the past, specifically in the rural South. It was thought to have been largely eliminated, although that might not have been true. The most harmed populations just so happen to be the very populations most ignored — these are mostly poor rural populations with little healthcare and hence limited availability of public health data. The problem was maybe more hidden than solved. Until a study was recently done, it apparently wasn’t an issue of concern beyond the local level and so there was no motivation to research it.

As hookworm is a parasite, with it comes the problems of parasite load. Parasitism and parasite load effect not just general health but also energy levels, neurocognitive development, intelligence, and personality traits; for example, toxoplsasmosis is correlated to higher rates of neuroticism and parasite load is correlated to lower rates of openness. Populations with heavy parasite load will behave in ways that are stereotyped as being poor, such as acting lethargic and unmotivated.

Research indicates that poverty rates are an indicator of diverse other factors, many being environmental. People dealing with such things as stress, malnutrition, and parasites literally have less energy and cognitive ability available to them. Under these oppressively draining conditions, the body and mind simply go into survival mode and short-term preparedness. This is seen on the physiological level with stressful conditions causing early sexual maturity and increase in fat reserves.

This relates to the worsening poverty in many parts of the country, exacerbated by growing inequality across the country. But in many cases these are problems that aren’t necessarily worsening, as they have simply been ignored up to this point. Put this also into the context of problems that are clearly worsening, specifically among lower class whites: unemployment, homelessness, stress-related diseases, mental health conditions, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicides. It’s not just poor minorities that have been shoved out of the way in the march of progress. Even the middle class is feeling the pressure, many of them falling down the economic ladder.

This is why most Americans at present neither trust big government nor big business. And this is why economic populism has taken hold. Since the DNC silenced Sanders in order to maintain the status quo, we got Trump as president instead. If we ignore these basic problems any longer, we are looking toward the possibility of an authoritarian takeover of our government and that would mean something far worse than Trump. That is what happens when a large part of the citizenry loses faith in the system and, unless a democratic revolution happens, are willing to look to a strongman who promises to do what needs to be done.

Simply put, we are long past the point of tolerating this inequality. This inequality is not just of income and wealth but also of political representation and public voice, of life opportunities and basic health. We shouldn’t tolerate this because the oppressed will only tolerate it for so long. Once we get beyond the point of collective failure, there is no turning back. The upper classes might prefer to continue ignoring it, but that isn’t a choice that is available. If push comes to shove, the upper classes might not like the choice that the oppressed will eventually demand by force. That is precisely why FDR created the New Deal. It was either that or something far worse: fascist coup, communist revolution, or societal collapse.

It would be nice if we Americans proactively solved our problems for once, instead of waiting for them to become an emergency and then haphazardly reacting. We probably won’t be so lucky to get another Roosevelt-like leader with a sense of noblesse oblige, belief in the duty to defend and uphold the public good. With that in mind, a useful beginning toward preventing catastrophe would be taking care of the basic the public health issues of rampant parasitism, lead toxicity, etc. That is the very least we can do, assuming we hope to avoid the worst. If we need an existential crisis to motivate ourselves and gain the political will to take action, we appear to be at that point or close to it.

Yet before we can deal with the parasites in poor areas, we might have to purge the body politic of the more dangerous parasites breeding within the plutocracy. That might require strong medicine.

* * *

Hookworm, a disease of extreme poverty, is thriving in the US south. Why?
by Ed Pilkington, The Guardian

These are the findings of a new study into endemic tropical diseases, not in places usually associated with them in the developing world of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, but in a corner of the richest nation on earth: Alabama.

Scientists in Houston, Texas, have lifted the lid on one of America’s darkest and deepest secrets: that hidden beneath fabulous wealth, the US tolerates poverty-related illness at levels comparable to the world’s poorest countries. More than one in three people sampled in a poor area of Alabama tested positive for traces of hookworm, a gastrointestinal parasite that was thought to have been eradicated from the US decades ago.

The long-awaited findings, revealed by the Guardian for the first time, are a wake-up call for the world’s only superpower as it grapples with growing inequality. Donald Trump has promised to “Make America Great Again” and tackle the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, but he has said very little about enduring chronic poverty, particularly in the southern states. […]

The parasite, better known as hookworm, enters the body through the skin, usually through the soles of bare feet, and travels around the body until it attaches itself to the small intestine where it proceeds to suck the blood of its host. Over months or years it causes iron deficiency and anemia, weight loss, tiredness and impaired mental function, especially in children, helping to trap them into the poverty in which the disease flourishes.

Hookworm was rampant in the deep south of the US in the earlier 20th century, sapping the energy and educational achievements of both white and black kids and helping to create the stereotype of the lazy and lethargic southern redneck. As public health improved, most experts assumed it had disappeared altogether by the 1980s.

But the new study reveals that hookworm not only survives in communities of Americans lacking even basic sanitation, but does so on a breathtaking scale. None of the people included in the research had travelled outside the US, yet parasite exposure was found to be prevalent, as was shockingly inadequate waste treatment.

The peer-reviewed research paper, published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, focuses on Lowndes County, Alabama – the home state of the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and a landmark region in the history of the nation’s civil rights movement. “Bloody Lowndes”, the area was called in reference to the violent reaction of white residents towards attempts to undo racial segregation in the 1950s.

It was through this county that Martin Luther King led marchers from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 in search of voting rights for black citizens, More than half a century later, King’s dream of what he called the “dignity of equality” remains elusive for many of the 11,000 residents of Lowndes County, 74% of whom are African American.

The average income is just $18,046 (£13,850) a year, and almost a third of the population live below the official US poverty line. The most elementary waste disposal infrastructure is often non-existent.

Some 73% of residents included in the Baylor survey reported that they had been exposed to raw sewage washing back into their homes as a result of faulty septic tanks or waste pipes becoming overwhelmed in torrential rains.

The Baylor study was inspired by Catherine Flowers, ACRE’s founder, who encouraged the Houston scientists to carry out the review after she became concerned about the health consequences of having so many open sewers in her home county. “Hookworm is a 19th-century disease that should by now have been addressed, yet we are still struggling with it in the United States in the 21st century,” she said.

“Our billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates fund water treatment around the world, but they don’t fund it here in the US because no one acknowledges that this level of poverty exists in the richest nation in the world.” […]

He added that people were afraid to report the problems, given the spate of criminal prosecutions that were launched by Alabama state between 2002 and 2008 against residents who were open-piping sewage from their homes, unable to afford proper treatment systems. One grandmother was jailed over a weekend for failing to buy a septic tank that cost more than her entire annual income. […]

The challenge to places like Lowndes County is not to restore existing public infrastructure, as Trump has promised, because there is no public infrastructure here to begin with. Flowers estimates that 80% of the county is uncovered by any municipal sewerage system, and in its absence people are expected – and in some cases legally forced – to provide their own.

Even where individuals can afford up to $15,000 to install a septic tank – and very few can – the terrain is against them. Lowndes County is located within the “Black Belt”, the southern sweep of loamy soil that is well suited to growing cotton and as a result spawned a multitude of plantations, each worked by a large enslaved population.

The same thing that made the land so good for cotton – its water-retaining properties – also makes it a hazard to the thousands of African Americans who still live on it today. When the rains come, the soil becomes saturated, overwhelming inadequate waste systems and providing a perfect breeding ground for hookworm. […]

“We now need to find how widespread hookworm is across the US,” said Dr Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, who led the research team along with Rojelio Mejia. Hotez, who has estimated that as many as 12 million Americans could be suffering from neglected tropical diseases in poor parts of the south and midwest, told the Guardian the results were a wake-up call for the nation.

“This is the inconvenient truth that nobody in America wants to talk about,” he said. “These people live in the southern United States, and nobody seems to care; they are poor, and nobody seems to care; and more often than not they are people of color, and nobody seems to care.”

13 thoughts on “Parasites Among the Poor and the Plutocrats

  1. Parasites have been a long time interest of mine. Microorganisms in general are fascinating. Most of the genetics in our bodies aren’t human.

    It’s also been of personal concern. I have a number of maladies that could be related to such things as parasites, toxicity, or similar causes. I’m diagnosed with depression which does include low energy. Also, I was also diagnosed with some mild thought or personality disorder, which just means I don’t think like a normal person. More fundamentally, I’ve had a learning disability since childhood.

    What I’m reminded of is the kind of childhood I had. I typically ran around barefoot, unless I was going far from the house. Much of my barefoot youth was also spent in the South. I was constantly playing in the woods and creeks, and I would note that some of the creeks I played in were later cleaned up for toxicity from old factories. Also, I was always getting cuts and rarely treating them. This probably caused the knee infection I had in elementary school.

    The chances are I’ve had many parasites over my lifetime. But this isn’t the type of thing that is normally tested for. The connection of parasites to lots of other problems has only become clear in recent years. It makes one wonder how vastly society could be improved at low costs of dealing with the most basic public health issues.

    • Here is the part you’re talking about:

      “It has been reported that hookworm infections (A. duodenale) are still common in northern Australian communities, particularly amongst Indigenous Australians. Hookworm infections are a common cause of anaemia and iron deficiency in Aboriginal women and children.”

      It’s a similar problem of rural areas. And it’s similar in disproportionately harming the poor and minorities. There is a difference, though. Australia has a much smaller rural population. That is true of most developed countries, specifically in the West.

      There a number of reasons for differences in rural populations, from one country to the next.

      About Australia, the rural areas are less hospitable than in the US and that is even more true with the recent history of severe drought conditions. This has forced most Australians to the coastal urban areas, which leaves the few remaining rural residents in even greater isolation and even more difficult conditions.

      Generally speaking, Western countries began mass urbanization centuries ago. The United States was different, because of the agricultural economy, in remaining majority rural into the 20th century. The US black population only became majority urban about a half century ago. So, the US probably has the largest rural population in the Western world.

      The Australian Aborigine were always a poor population, as they were largely excluded from the main economy. They are more comparable to Native Americans on reservations. The problem of hookworm in the US, however, also effects a large number of rural whites. The US has far more whites in rural areas than other comparable post-colonial Western countries.

      On top of that, US rural poverty has a different historical development. Unlike Australia or Canada, there was plantation slavery in large parts of the country and the entire national economy was tied into slave trade. In some states, the majority of the population was enslaved. That kind of history doesn’t exist in any other major developed country in the world.

      Research has shown the impact of this history. In areas of heavy slave concentration in the US, there is greater poverty to this day than in other parts of the country. This poverty in these areas effects everyone living there, not just blacks but also whites.

      So, higher hookworm rates will be found in various populations many countries, even some Western countries. But in the US, what exacerbates public health issues is the large rural population with concentrated poverty, economic segregation, and growing inequality. This makes the US unique among developed countries and more similar to developing countries.

    • That fits with what I’ve recently been thinking about Amazon. It goes to show that it isn’t just Amazon and isn’t just the United States.

      This economic system has become the norm in many countries around the world, no matter the claims of culture and politics that seem to make each country distinct. Neoliberalism has no loyalty to any country, any government, and any citizenry.

      This company from the article, like Amazon, sells products to many countries. It’s largely arbitrary where the factory is located, other than where cheap labor and infrastructure is available.

    • I was reading a lot of articles like that. It’s what finally pushed me to break my customer ties with Amazon and take my business elsewhere. It’s gotten too bad to continue tolerating it. I probably should have cut my ties long ago. But I can’t deny that Amazon is extremely convenient and I like their Kindle devices.

      It’s far from my hating them for their success. It’s just the human and societal cost is too high. No amount of success can justify blatant wrongdoing to the level of organizational sociopathy. I can’t see why Amazon couldn’t be just as successful or maybe more successful without being evil.

      If they ever change their ways, I’d love to support their new policy of supporting free markets, promoting humane treatment of workers, and aligning themselves with democracy. But I’m not going to hold my breath waiting. More likely, anti-trust laws will eventually force their oligopoly to be broken up. Then we will see what kinds of separate corporations will form out of it.

      I also like the idea of international labor organizing. That could create the leverage to force these companies to reform themselves. But such massive organizing might require or lead to global revolution in challenging global neoliberalism, corporatism, and plutocracy. All peaceful and non-revolutionary attempts to organize workers on this level have met with organized propaganda, systematic oppression, state power, and often brutal violence.

      That is something to keep in mind while reading the conclusion to the first linked article:

      “An older immigrant worker who had been working at the Amazon facility for a long time was particularly dissatisfied with his plight and expressed a hope that a union could be established to help win better conditions.

      “While such sentiments are understandable given the brutal conditions of exploitation under which Amazon workers labour on a daily basis, the trade unions offer no way forward to fight back. Over the past three decades, they have transformed themselves into appendages of corporate management and the state, and forced through attacks on pay and working conditions on the workers they purport to represent. In places like Brampton and the surrounding areas, they have played a decisive role in the assault on what were once relatively well-paid and stable jobs in the manufacturing sector, including in auto.

      “The unions’ avowed nationalism, under conditions of the globalization of production, has led to workers being played off against each other in a race to the bottom, as each union bureaucracy competes to attract investment by acting as a labour contractor for the global corporations.

      “Workers confront an international struggle, which at the globally active Amazon conglomerate is posed with extreme sharpness. This requires the adoption of a new perspective for political struggle, based on a decisive break with the trade unions and their political backers, the formation of independent action committees to take up the fight for better wages and working conditions, and the waging of a political struggle on the basis of a socialist and internationalist program.”

    • “Amazon sometimes appears to be a company with two faces. On one side, there is the customer-obsessed, e-commerce-revolutionizing, ever-expanding hub for everything anyone could ever need at the click of a button. On the other, there is a company that is reportedly difficult to work for—the one brutally portrayed in a New York Times story that ran in August. The hours are punishing, the demands and competition unmanageable, the conditions rough, and the stress and striving endless.”

      I’ve read about other people who have stopped doing business or refused ever to do business with Amazon. That might be a larger number than many would expect and it might be a ever growing number. The two sides of the company can’t be separated. In the long term, what happens in one will effect the other.

      “The side of Amazon that is customer-facing and completely convenient seems untouched by public reports of its cutthroat, internal culture. It may be that Amazon is too ubiquitous for reports about its warehouse conditions to hurt its bottom line. The company reported its most profitable quarter ever in the last three months of 2015—its third-consecutive profitable quarter—despite last year’s blockbuster Times report, which was splashed across every media outlet for days on end. Amazon’s vitality may have reached a point where it doesn’t matter whether or not it is virtuous.”

      Bezos thinks he is untouchable. But no one is untouchable. Every political movement and revolution began with elites who thought they were untouchable. And they often find out too late that they can be touched. In this era of populist outrage, right-wing militancy, revolutionary fervor, and global terrorism, plutocrats like Bezos are playing with fire.

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