My focus on attempting to sketch out a political economy of pathogens, outbreaks and their containment and treatment has so far focused primarily on the link between the development and expansion of agribusiness. Here as pointed out by Wallace, we saw nothing less than collusion between business, multi-national organizations and governments to alter narratives regarding the prevalence of pathogens and their dispersion and even muddy waters regarding their origins within the industrial farming processes and the process of primitive accumulation. There are however other aspects of the economy I haven’t remarked on so far that are none the less vital for getting to grips with the political economy of pathogens.
In a short spot produced for Bloomberg, the philosopher, Reza Negrestani, laid our three potential lens through which to view the latest pandemic outbreak, one where this was considered a pandemic in the same vein as the almost yearly ebola outbreaks, a phenomenon in itself without the means to affect change on a more global scale. The second that this was a pandemic following the same trajectory as globalization the rapidity and global spread of the virus linked to the transnational nature of twenty-first century flows of global capital. The third, Negrestani referred to as the communist critique, where intensity and virulence of the COVID outbreak was linked to the maldistribution of healthcare and other essential resources.
The latter point, has lately been of particular interest. Earlier this year the UK Housing Magazine, Inside Housing, published a feature written by Nathaniel Barker on the impact of residential arrangements on the spread of the virus. Poor housing, as outlined by Barker was already correlated to worse health outcomes including the increased prevalence of cardiovascular, cancer and perhaps most importantly given the current crisis, respiratory illness.
According to figures drawn from the Office of National Statistics, areas of affected by acute socio-economic deprivation had significantly higher mortality rates. Inside housing’s analysis using data drawn from the 2011 census revealed that areas marked by overcrowding, where overcrowding is defined by one or fewer bedrooms required by the household was closely correlated with higher rates of mortality with Newham, a council marred by having a prevalence of overcrowded households also suffered the highest COVID mortality rates. John Gray, a lead member for housing services at Newham Council, went further and described COVID as a “housing disease”. The reasons for this were subsequently laid out by Adam Timson, a senior analyst at the health foundation, overcrowding made self-isolation, one of the primary methods to prevent the transmission of the virus, difficult and there was also an increased correlation with people on lower incomes often sharing premises with older family members. This is acutely felt in London where 26 of the 30 areas listed as being greatly affected by overcrowding are located.
The disproportionate number of BAME, Black And Minority Ethnic, deaths in the UK covered in the British Media appears to follow on from this whilst 2% of Caucasian household’s experience overcrowding, statistics taken from the English Housing Survey suggest the figure rises to 30% for Bangladeshi households, 16% for Pakistani households and 15% for Black African households. The overcrowding is further exacerbated upon looking at houses of multiple occupancy, HMOs, that is houses rented to 5 or more people not from the same background. Statistics taken from the ONS once again show councils reporting a larger number of houses of multiple occupancy reporting higher number of COVID deaths. HMOs are typically run by landlords and quite often correlate with sub-standard living conditions, in recent times due to cut backs in social housing such accommodation has also been used to house the homeless or those who are otherwise in insecure accommodation a demographic who are already, due to exposure, at risk.
There are, at this point several assumptions that I’ve made that I may need to qualify, firstly what is the cause of overcrowding in major cities, specifically in this case London. One fairly immediate culprit is house prices, according to the ONS, the number of Londoners able to afford their own homes has fallen from 57% in 1990 to around 34% in 2018 during this time, during a time where house prices rose by around 78% whilst wages, when the price of consumer goods has been taken into account, have stagnated and still not outstripped their 2008 peak. Rents have also increased by around 16% between 2011 and 2017 as outlined by the charity Shelter, outstripping an average 10% rise in wages during the same time. The net effect appears to be born out by changes not only in the number of people sharing a single household, but also the particular demographic, a 2015 article by the guardian detailed how the 45-54 age group has increasingly began to rely on private rentals with an estimated 300% increase in the number of people within this demographic now relying on privately rented accommodation.
I have to this point primarily focused on housing however as I will subsequently show a similar, if slightly more complex picture emerges if we begin to look at healthcare.