<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Retsinas Genocide & Health

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Genocide and Health

The hunt is on for the elixir that will wipe out the microbes that plague us, the diseases that cripple us, the maladies that cripple us. “We” are fine; it is the onslaught of alien organisms that wreak havoc with our otherwise perfect bodies.

Unhappily for the frenzied march (not forward, just a march) of civilizations, we’ve extended that fear of the “alien” to peoples. By a design plan, maybe one coded into our evolutionary genetics, or happenstance, we have clustered into communities delineated by ethnicity, religion, and/or statehood. Of course, ethnicity is never truly pure – the marauding gangs of invaders and attackers have sullied pristine lineages – and religions devolve into a hodgepodge of beliefs and customs. In short, we humans are a varied polyglot mass that cleaves along different lines, depending upon the era. And the cleavages, depending upon proximity, have often segued into wars where the names, the causes, the battles lie open only to archaeologists. The Hittites, Sumerians, Babylonians – names in crossword puzzles.

So it is fitting that a column about health policy devolves into a column about politics – not the politics of insurance, or research, or treatments — but the politics of genocide. The zeal to encapsulate “pure” communities has killed, maimed, and brutalized more people than the microbes we blame for disease.

This year marks the centennial of the Armenian genocide; historians trace the cataclysm to the arrest in April 1915 of 250 Armenian leaders; but Armenians had suffered under a contemptuous rule long before that. In 1915, though, Turkey, keen on purifying its nation, started to expel Armenians, killing the men, forcing the women and children on treks across the desert that killed all but the hardy. We know now – some people knew even then — of the atrocities: children herded into caves, with fires lit at the entrance. Women explicitly starved. Those who knew, and deplored, the actions, did not deplore strongly enough. Hitler could rest assured that the West would overlook his own genocidal campaign.

Most Americans barely remember the massacre of Armenians. After all, in the last century we’ve seen a slew of horrific efforts to eradicate “others:” the Kurds (who once tortured the Armenians), the Hutus (victims in Burundi in 1972), the Tutsis (victims in Rwanda in 1994), the Cambodians, recently the Yazidis in Iraq. The list goes on, with religion exerting its own murderous cleavages. And with technology abetting our worst instincts. Genocide is not a rarity.

There are no clear-cut paths to eradicating our zeal to preserve the purity of our communities, however we define “community.” Religious impulses, which encourage peace, too often end in battles of isms: mine versus yours versus his. And “nationhood,” that 20th century Western advance that imposed political geographic boundaries on ethnic communities, often leads to the mass deportations and exoduses that reinforce cleavages.

Yet – a major “yet” – if we wish to improve health, we must look not just at microbes. Malaria, AIDS, and now Ebola are ravaging parts of Africa; but their impact pales beside the impact of the tribal wars, the mass deportations, the engineered campaigns to starve communities, to keep entire peoples living at subsistence. If we in the West think we have escaped the sequelae of those conflicts, we haven’t. Our troops fight in those conflicts that we can barely recall. Was Iran our ally as we fought Iraq once upon a time? Did we fund the Taliban as they fought the Russians in Afghanistan? Whose side were we on in Bosnia? Ironically, we democratic Americans are discovering that when we “export” democracy to parts of the world., we may inadvertently fuel the oppression of minorities, leaving them without the protection of the dictators who in the past shielded them, curbing the popular zeal to expel, or eradicate the “others” in their midst.

So it behooves us – for the sake of health – to stop demonizing “the other,” to recognize the variety of people’s coloring, customs, governments, gods – and let them be. Maybe we need to become color-blind, or develop prosopagnosia, where we don’t recognize faces. Maybe we need to inter-marry – different ethnicities, different religions, different nations. Maybe we must redirect our eagerness for “us” versus “them” to sports. I don’t know.

But I do know that even if we eradicate every microbe, thwart every disease, unless we stop killing each other, we will not have progressed toward “health.”

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email retsinas@verizon.net.

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2015


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