Thursday, June 02, 2016

Climate Crisis Challenges: Zika and A Country Breaking Down

The Zika virus poses particular known and heartbreaking threats, mostly to pregnant women and specifically their offspring. As bad as a big outbreak might get, it so far it has not had widely lethal or debilitating effects otherwise.

Nevertheless, it is both a specific threat and a likely harbinger of things to come. It offers a kind of tryout of public health responses, and so far it's not a reassuring sight.

It is a harbinger because it is disease carried by an insect, a certain breed of mosquito (though there may be other breeds who can carry this virus.)  Mosquitoes are most prevalent in hot times and places, and as global heating expands both, mosquito-borne diseases are among those likely to also expand, even to the point of epidemic.  More communities are going to be vulnerable and affected, including many that have not experienced such a threat before.

This is only one of the public health challenges that are effects of global heating and the climate crisis.  Add to the independent or force multiplier factors that make pandemics more likely (global travel spreading infectious contact very fast, overuse of antibiotics leading to resistant mutations, etc.), and a public health system that can respond quickly with the necessary resources is one of the most important functions of communities and their governments, especially national governments and global connections among governments.

So far the US is not responding adequately to Zika, and in the process is making public health worse in general.  Congress--particularly the rabid right Republican controlled House--is not appropriating sufficient funds, and what funds are made available are being stolen from other public health programs, leading to unconscionable layoffs of public health doctors and others.

While Congress plays politics with Zika funding, gaps in state funding for public health research and preparations are exposed, including states most likely to feel the first effects of Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses.  Past federal failures to support public health has led to increased burdens on states and cities, which in turn has led to facilities being closed.

This is part of a resurgent global problem of inattention and neglect by governments, according to the World Health Organization Director-General.  With more resources and steadfast attention, there are better chances of such outbreaks being prevented as well as quickly addressed.

Public health is a vital part of a community's health care infrastructure.  National and international public health is an area that the climate crisis is going to test again and again.  Public health is essential to a community remaining an operative, democratic, peaceful society.

But public health is not the only part of vital infrastructure that's neglected, and in the US, often in the same ways.  Elizabeth Drew's detailed examination of the state of American infrastructure, "A Country Breaking Down" in the New York Review of Books begins:

It would be helpful if there were another word for “infrastructure”: it’s such an earnest and passive word for the blood vessels of this country, the crucial conveyors and connections that get us from here to there (or not) and the ports that facilitate our trade (or don’t), as well as the carriers of information, in particular broadband (if one is connected to it), and other unreliable structures. The word “crisis” is also overused, applied to the unimportant as well as the crucial. But this country has an infrastructure crisis.

The near-total failure of our political institutions to invest for the future, eschewing what doesn’t yield the quick payoff, political and physical, has left us with hopelessly clogged traffic, at risk of being on a bridge that collapses, or on a train that flies off defective rails, or with rusted pipes carrying our drinking water. Broadband is our new interstate highway system, but not everyone has access to it—a division largely based on class. Depending on the measurement used, the United States ranks from fourteenth to thirtieth among all nations in its investments in infrastructure. The wealthiest nation on earth is nowhere near the top."

Much of the infrastructure we depend on for survival was built mainly with federal government money in the 1930s (Roosevelt) and 1950s (Eisenhower.)  Many big cities, including New York, are dependent on even older water and sewage systems.  But public spending has become politically toxic, almost entirely as a rationalization for the country's rich to keep more of their riches.  (And if the dot com billionaires want to do something public spirited, they might band together and lobby Congress for a major infrastructure program to be financed by taxing them and their fellow 10%.)

What little infrastructure Congress has financed--most recently in the highway bill--was done (as Drew's piece notes) through unprecedented thievery from other government resources that are just as likely as falling infrastructure to cause future disaster.  President Obama noted that same impulse in the Congressional approach to financing Zika funds.

Infrastructure is often described as essential to the economy--that is, essential to the businesses that make people wealthy enough to hire lobbyists, lawyers and congresspeople to avoid paying taxes. Fixing and building it is also widely known as an economic stimulus.

But infrastructure is much more important than that.  It is essential to civilized life.  Infrastructure of all kinds is essential to healthy, functioning, democratic, peaceful communities.

Moreover, this infrastructure is going to be additionally stressed by the effects of the climate crisis--by flooding, by drought, by high winds in storms, by fire, by intense heat waves and intense periods of cold, and by the multiplication of such catastrophes in time and in extent.  A healthy infrastructure has a better chance to stand up against such stresses, or to be more easily repaired and restored.  By ignoring this need, we're shooting ourselves in more than the foot.

In sum, strong infrastructure--including civic infrastructure and especially public health--along with forethought and planning, can help citizens and communities in the near future deal with effects of the climate crisis.  Without strong infrastructure, our society is much more threatened.

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