Spartacist Canada No. 162
Racism, Capitalism and Public Health
Swine Flu Ravages Aboriginal Population
As of August 23, “Novel H1N1 Influenza A Virus” (swine flu) has killed more than 2,100 people worldwide and infected more than 200,000. These figures underestimate the sweep of the virus so far, as individual cases are no longer reported. Swine flu has already affected large numbers of otherwise healthy young people, but it is especially dangerous, and often fatal, to those with compromised immune systems, pregnant women and the poor. Aboriginal populations in Canada and Australia have been hit especially hard.
The epicentre of the initial outbreak in Canada was found in remote areas of northern Manitoba, where the infection rate among aboriginal people in July was 135 per 100,000—as opposed to about 20 per 100,000 for the general population. While Native people make up only 13.6 percent of the province’s inhabitants, they account for two-thirds of those needing intensive care for treatment of swine flu.
On the other side of the world, Australian Aborigines in the remote Northern Territory were also dramatically impacted by the first wave of infections. This grotesque symmetry is no accident of genetics. The ravaging effects of swine flu are a symptom of the profound racism of this capitalist society, and the cumulative effect of centuries of social destruction, desperate poverty and brutal state repression visited on aboriginal peoples in both countries.
Capitalism Fuels Pandemic
Swine flu is a relatively new strain of the H1N1 virus containing a mixture of genetic material from human, pig and bird flu. The virus first appeared in Mexico, and some scientists believe its appearance is linked to the vast, low-wage hog production industry there. Workers on these factory farms face brutal conditions, including “lagoons” of untreated waste.
Little is “natural” about this pandemic, any more than the disproportionate death rates blossoming among populations that the capitalist rulers have deemed “expendable.” As with AIDS, which continues to ravage sub-Saharan Africa, or, on a much smaller scale, the SARS epidemic which claimed hundreds of lives in 2003, the inhuman incapacity of the system of production for private profit to rationally contend with pandemic illness is a modern manifestation of what revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky in 1938 already termed “the death agony of capitalism.”
As the World Health Organization issued warnings over rising pandemic levels during the spring and new cases appeared everywhere, several governments slapped irrational bans on imports of live pigs, or—as in Egypt—slaughtered entire herds en masse. But as the initial outbreaks passed and it was determined that the effects of H1N1 were relatively mild for most people, official panic promptly gave way to the dictates of medicine-for-profit. Ottawa awarded its huge contract for 50 million doses of vaccines to a single company, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. Citing “packaging” issues, GSK wouldn’t commit to begin deliveries until November, long after the predicted onset of a second wave of infections, which may hit as early as September.
As drug companies look to “make a killing” from this worldwide pandemic, the sheer irrationality of the bourgeois order stands starkly exposed. As we noted in “SARS: Capitalism, Racism and Public Health” (SC No. 137, Summer 2003):
“With its technological development, capitalism has knit all of the globe together by creating a world market. Yet this system, based on competition and production for profit, produces war, poverty and massive inequality, especially in the countries subjugated by imperialism. Even eminently practicable public health measures such as vaccines and clean water are unavailable to hundreds of millions.
“An international planned economy would take immediate steps to direct the necessary resources to areas affected by dangerous viruses like SARS, not to mention AIDS, which is killing tens of millions. Free, quality health care for all is within the bounds of material possibility, but not under capitalism, where the availability and quality of health care for the masses of working people is subordinate to the drive for profit.”
Racist Canadian State Obstructs Anti-Flu Measures
In July, a photographer in Nunavut caught the image of two young Inuit children sleeping amid refuse on a street in the capital, Iqaluit. Picked up by major news media covering an official visit by prime minister Stephen Harper, the picture sparked outrage, much of it hypocritical. It was soon revealed that the mother of one of the boys had been ill with flu for several weeks, while at the same time having to care alone for five children.
Only rarely do the grotesque conditions endured by aboriginal peoples in Canada’s far north make headlines: contaminated water, extreme poverty, crowding in inadequate unsafe housing, lack of access to decent food. Aboriginal households suffer rates of “severe food insecurity” over five times higher than non-aboriginal households. Such conditions, magnified by a serious lack of medical services, are a perfect vector for the spread of communicable diseases.
In every part of the country, the daily experience of life for aboriginal people is raw racism, homelessness, sky-high incarceration rates and police terror. Now the media are reporting a wave of murders of Native women in Manitoba, recalling the grisly killings of dozens of mainly aboriginal women in British Columbia several years ago. Suicide rates among Native youth are five to seven times higher than for the rest of the population. The very real social pathologies of domestic violence, abuse of children and drug addiction affect all capitalist societies, but are exacerbated by the brutal enforced marginalization and poverty of aboriginal people.
Outrageously, since the initial outbreaks of swine flu in May, Ottawa has time and again refused increasingly desperate appeals for help from Manitoba aboriginal leaders. Although at least 20 people had to be airlifted from Manitoba’s remote St. Theresa Point First Nation 500 kilometres south to Winnipeg for treatment of the swine flu virus, the feds turned down Native leaders’ requests for a field hospital to combat the infection. Health Canada officials instead announced they might have to close several nursing stations and medical centres in northern Manitoba due to lack of personnel.
Manitoba chiefs sounded the alarm by declaring a state of emergency in their communities and began a desperate effort to raise funds on their own for basic medical supplies and sanitary equipment for isolated communities ravaged by the first round of infections. Their efforts were met with bald-faced racism—even shipments of urgently needed hand sanitizer were held up by Health Canada, which professed “concerns” that these could be consumed for their alcohol content by the inhabitants of the flu-ravaged reserves! Residents of the St. Theresa Point First Nation visiting their sick relatives in Winnipeg hospitals were forced, on orders from Health Canada, to leave the St. Regis Hotel because they “could have been infected” with the virus.
On August 20, David Butler-Jones, who heads the Public Health Agency of Canada, declined to help fund 15,000 emergency flu kits being organized by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. The kits include such items as thermometers, gloves, masks and Tylenol which are either unavailable or prohibitively expensive in remote communities. Offering nothing, Butler-Jones sneered that such measures were “unwarranted” and would create “a false sense of protection.” Health Canada’s website meanwhile advises to “wash hands frequently with soap and warm water”—a sick joke for people living in overcrowded, deteriorating homes on dirt-poor reserves without clean water or toilets.
Racist contempt for the rights, health and lives of Native peoples is not an aberration of this or that official or governing party, but is woven into the very fabric of the bourgeois state. Beginning with the smallpox, measles and typhus that exterminated up to 90 percent of the New World’s indigenous inhabitants, disease has always been the handmaiden of fraud and brute force in the ruling class’s theft of aboriginal lands and resources. The last great plague to decimate Canada’s aboriginal peoples occurred with the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which wiped out entire villages. The death toll among aboriginal people during that outbreak was more than five times greater than the national average.
Canadian capitalism was founded on the destruction of the pre-existing aboriginal societies, beginning under French and later English colonialism. The survivors were thrown into reserves established to formalize their dispossession at the hands of a virulently bigoted Anglo-chauvinist ruling class. From the hanging of Métis leader Louis Riel nearly 125 years ago, to the assassination of Dudley George at Ipperwash, Ontario, to the military assaults at Gustafsen Lake, B.C. and Oka, Quebec, the price of resistance to this arrangement has been state violence and murder. Only a social revolution by the multiethnic working class, leading all oppressed minorities in the struggle to sweep away capitalist barbarism, will be able to redress the centuries of crimes inflicted on aboriginal societies by capitalist plunder and oppression.
Australia—Racist Hellhole for Aborigines
Substitute searing heat for bitter cold and the pictures of state-sponsored anti-aboriginal racism, grinding poverty and exclusion in Australia and Canada become nearly identical. Aborigines, who make up only 2.5 percent of the Australian population, have been hospitalized and are dying from swine flu at five times the national rate. Among the tiny and remote indigenous community of Palm Island, where unemployment is 90 percent and life expectancy only 50 years, one in ten residents were feared to have caught the virus. Elementary measures like quarantining patients are impossible on the island, where an average of 16 people are crowded into each house!
Palm Island epitomizes the brutal racism and social degradation imposed by the Australian rulers on Aboriginal people. It is also notorious for the brutal killing in 2004 of Mulrunji Doomadgee by the cop Chris Hurley. Hurley—the first cop ever to be charged for an Aboriginal death in police custody in Australia—was eventually exonerated, rewarded and promoted, while the leader of the Aboriginal protests over the murder, Lex Wotton, was sentenced to six years in jail.
On top of the permanent state of endemic poverty, malnutrition and chronic disease in Australia’s “deep north,” the current epidemic is hitting Aboriginal communities already besieged by a brutal police/military occupation. In 2007, the then Liberal/National government of John Howard sent cops and army personnel to invade and occupy 73 Aboriginal townships and communities on the pretext of stopping “child abuse,” hypocritically banning alcohol and pornography. This occupation, a naked land grab, has been intensified by the current Labor government. When the state first launched this assault two years ago, our comrades of the Spartacist League of Australia immediately issued a protest statement, declaring:
“The working class has a direct interest in taking up the fight to defend Aboriginal people and all the oppressed. For working class protests against racist state repression! Down with Howard’s martial law! No to cop/military occupations of Northern Territory Aboriginal communities!”
—“Australia: Racist War on Aborigines,” SC No. 154, Fall 2007
A further anti-Aboriginal atrocity sparked outrage this June, with the release of a coroner’s report from Western Australia. It described the death in police custody of an Aboriginal elder who effectively “cooked to death” for hours in the back of a prison van without air conditioning as he was being transported. Guards who opened the van to find him near death, lying with third-degree burns on the burning-hot metal floor, would not even enter the van to help him, merely flicking water on him before driving on to a hospital.
Gruesome deaths in “police custody” are an all-too-familiar occurrence for Native people in both Canada and Australia, who know from daily experience that the greatest instigators of violence are the armed, uniformed gangs of the capitalist state.
Labour Must Defend Native Rights!
Native people need jobs at union wages and massive education, health and housing programs, including the provision of clean water and electricity. For free quality health care and education for all! But basic justice for aboriginal people and all the oppressed and exploited will not come through any amount of pressuring the capitalist state for a few limited and ultimately reversible concessions, but by the expropriation of the capitalist class under a workers state.
To achieve this will require a revolutionary party of working people forged on an authentic Marxist program, a party of the Bolshevik type, fundamentally different from the parties of capital or the pro-capitalist social democrats of the NDP. Creating the nucleus of such a party, as part of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), is the purpose of the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste. As we state in our “Programmatic Theses”:
“Only the destruction of capitalism can hold out the possibility of voluntary integration, on the basis of full equality, for those aboriginal peoples who desire it, and the fullest possible regional autonomy for those who do not
“The unremitting proletarian defense of Native people’s lives and rights as equal citizens is part of the fight of the multiracial working class to overturn this whole brutal and violent capitalist system. Only an egalitarian-socialist society under workers rule will be able to redress three centuries of abuse and degradation.”
—Who We Are, and What We Fight For (August 1998)