Inflammatory disorders, pain & chronic illnesses- capitalism's impact on our bodies

+ Ecological disasters are Earth's chronic illnesses. The SAME systems are making us & the land sick.

Mar 22, 2023
∙ Paid

Climate disasters, widespread depression & anxiety, COVID-19, increasing rates of chronic inflammatory diseases, pain & chronic illnesses in general— do we really think all these simultaneously escalating problems are distinct, unrelated issues occurring in their own vacuum, independent of each other? There is a common cause driving the chronic illnesses manifesting in human bodies and the ecological illnesses manifesting in the Earth’s body.

If the medicalized jargon & language of “diagnosis” has helped you make sense of your pain at some point, then the appropriate diagnosis for our collective maladies should be systemic, not individual.

The diagnosis (root pathology): Capitalism/ Colonialism

Let’s take a huge step back- what does “health” even mean? What do we need to be healthy? Have any of us ever truly been healthy in the fullest sense if most of us have never had the right to live under capitalism (never had guaranteed food, water, shelter, care)? What is considered “normal” & “abnormal” health in an exploitative, brutal society? People who conform, obey, fit in & assimilate are often considered “healthy”— but are they? Is it a badge of honor or a mark of “wellness” to be well-adjusted to this profoundly inequitable, oppressive, sick society?

Are modern medicine & science really objective, benevolent, humanitarian, innovative systems "saving lives"? Are these systems even designed to combat both worsening health outcomes and environmental crises?

For paid subscribers: The video above is a recording of a recent keynote I gave to student & community organizers at McGill University. I added a link to the powerpoint at the bottom of this newsletter. This is an introductory workshop (future ones will expand on it).

Workshop Title: Decolonizing Healing & Medicine, Re-imagining Community Care

Description: From mental health crises to COVID-19 and chronic illnesses-- capitalism/ colonialism are making us all sick in different ways and destroying the planet at large. We've been taught to think about our health & wellbeing in a vacuum. Our health is tied to the health of our community, the land, flora, fauna & every part of our ecosystems. We're part of nature, not separate from it. How do we address our distress through a political, collectivist lens and step away from individualistic, pathologizing, colonial, profit-driven models of "healing"? What do we need to truly be healthy and how can we build those networks of interdependence & mutual care? How can we take care of the land so it may care for us?

We deserve better care. The planet deserves better care.

There has been a wave of fascist state bills in the United States like those banning abortions or criminalizing any reproductive & gender-affirming care. In the aftermath- many times, doctors have been hailed as heroes in the frontlines of the fight for bodily autonomy. The reality of what medicine is designed to do, however, is a lot less rosy & heroic. Similarly, modern mental healthcare (from psychiatry to therapy) is often touted as a life-affirming answer to our distress or a more benevolent alternative to prisons & police. “Everyone should go to therapyis a standard, common, supposedly radical, leftist take even though it doesn’t question the history & foundations of mainstream therapy. The “goal” of therapy just like the ultimate purpose of medicine is to get people back to work, not to heal us or free us. Many people spend years in therapy not being helped and their problems escalate because therapy can often be similar to colonial “re-education schools”. These systems are state tools of population control designed to uphold & maintain the status quo— the same status quo that is making us sick. Deep breath. Understanding exactly what these systems are allows us to engage with them critically while building & practicing alternatives to heal collectively.

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I’ve seen the damage on both sides— in the hospital, research lab & as a patient

I’ve been trained in academic medicine and research as a clinical microbiologist specializing in the diagnosis of infectious diseases. I’ve traversed these systems, interfaced with many specialties or parts of capitalist healthcare systems & learned about how they profit off of sickness. These systems have also destroyed my body & wrecked my health, rendering me a patient just like anyone else. These struggles have ignited a flame in me to dream BIGGER. What CAN medicine or science look like if they truly aimed to care for people by caring for every part of our ecosystems?

COVID-19 brought to the surface (or rather made more obvious) the consequences of the exploitative, oppressive systems that we live under. If we’ve never had systems that valued, preserved & sustained life, we cannot create them smack in the middle of a pandemic (which is an end-point manifestation of much deeper social diseases). Given that our health is directly tied to the health of the land & all the flora/ fauna/ microbes on it… how can we practice medicine in a way where human health is inseparable from ecosystem health? How can we take diverse approaches to healthcare that include spiritual, traditional, land-based practices & be aware of the limitations modern “evidence-based medicine”?

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Over-active immune & nervous systems— oppression causes inflammatory disorders

Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice: Marya, Rupa, Patel,  Raj: 9780374602512: Books
This collaborative work by Dr. Rupa Marya (an internal medicine doc, activist & musician) and Raj Patel (food sovereignty & environmental activist, academic, film-maker) uses inflammation as a case study to identify colonial capitalism as the root cause of all our pathologies.

Inflammation is the body’s natural immune response against harm, illness or distress. It is a defensive, critical, life-sustaining, necessary healing process. Disorders emerge when inflammation occurs repeatedly & chronically persists as our bodies constantly have to respond to ongoing, never-ending damage that occurs under oppressive systems.

Inflammatory disorders include a wide array of conditions- some have been more extensively named in mainstream medicine like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases including hypertension, autoimmune disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or Crohn’s disease, endometriosis, asthma, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, liver diseases etc. Then there are other inflammatory diseases that are more shrouded in mystery as medicine has failed to understand them or adequately conceptualize them. These are loosely labeled under buckets like “chronic pain” or “chronic inflammation” or even categorized as mental illnesses which translates to “these conditions are clearly caused by complex sociopolitical factors that medicine cannot understand & is fundamentally unequipped to address”.

There are many chronic conditions that medicine doesn’t even have words for or different providers will assign different diagnoses to them based on their arbitrary, subjective assessments. For my chronic pain & inflammation, I’ve had to bounce from specialist to specialist before realizing medicine had no solutions & at best was able to dampen or numb some of my symptoms which also came at a great cost. The medications themselves wreck havoc on our bodies— from destroying my liver & kidneys to numbing me out entirely & enabling dissociation. & yet again I’m faced with choosing between two evils. None of this is a real choice given that I went broke paying the out-of-pocket costs for countless specialist doctors visits, procedures, tests & medication trials. So from both being a worker within medicine & as a “patient”, I understand how fundamentally flawed the healthcare system is & that it was never designed to heal.

“I am not sick. I am fine.” Why the widespread denial?

Many people are traversing the world with inflamed bodies in denial of their pain & distress. Other people have wholly accepted medicine’s pathologization of their distress as innate biological defects that simply emerged in their bodies in a vacuum through genetic, physiological abnormalities. Both of these extremes only serve to maintain the power of oppressive systems. Capitalism/ colonialism either require us to remain in denial or to think that we are the problem so we direct all our efforts to “fixing” & “curing” ourselves. Both the path of denial or self-pathologization are inspired by a desperation to conform & assimilate into the very same systems that are crushing us all.

Since birth, we’ve been thrust into perpetual fight or flight survival mode. As children, we have to follow rules & obey hierarchies in school or comply with norms at home, and as adults we transition to being exploited & extracted at work. Living under capitalism has pushed us to normalize a baseline level of oppression & brutality— which means we’ve also normalized the resulting sicknesses, aches, pains & symptoms that compound & linger in our bodies over a lifetime. Inflammation is our bodies alarm system that we can actually use as a guide to understand what needs healing. This alarm system has been ringing non-stop & it’s constant buzzing has faded into our subconscious to where it takes a particularly intense blip from this baseline level of sickness to startle & incapacitate us significantly. Some people may be more severely disabled & unable to conform— they are categorized as “unproductive” & discarded to the fringes of society. It really is heartbreaking how much sickness people around the world have normalized living with.

This is all that we’ve ever known. It can be hard for us to imagine what existing within a “healthy” body viscerally feels like if we’ve never experienced a truly healthy, collectivist society in real-time where we have the baseline right to live. However, more sustainable solutions to these ailments have always existed. We’ve practiced existing outside the confines of capitalism & healed in our relationships in more expansive & transformative ways than a pill or procedure can ever provide (even if we may not have realized it).

Illnesses in so-called “developed” countries

Modern, industrialized, so-called “high income” countries often have disproportionately high levels of maladies categorized as mental illnesses— depression, anxiety, etc. Depending on our sociopolitical context, the way capitalism/ colonialism infiltrate our lives & damage our bodies is nuanced. In so-called under-developed countries, infectious diseases are still the major cause of death. As we get closer to the heart of the empire, we still see widespread suffering but the precise nature of this distress is different based on context.

People in colonial countries like the U.S., Canada, Australia, Western Europe etc face similar yet distinct environmental & societal stressors as the Global South while also often lacking collectivist cultural traditions to cushion their fall which creates a pandemic of “mental illnesses”. Countries in the Global south that become more industrialized like India or China also begin to see a concomitant rise in mental illnesses and chronic inflammatory diseases. Meanwhile, working class, poor, Black & Brown communities are disproportionately targeted by diseases in the Global North— from COVID-19 to inflammatory disorders. Medicine addresses race, income, gender, sexuality & other social factors as biological variables without ever diving into WHY certain people are sicker.

For example: though many studies show the disproportionate prevalence of diabetes in marginalized populations like Black & Indigenous communities in the United States, medicine still treats it as though it is a mere dysfunction of pancreatic cells or dysfunction of our own cells responding to insulin. This does not answer why certain communities are targeted more by diabetes or any illness. It also doesn’t address why rates of chronic inflammatory diseases are rising (even in previously less-susceptible populations like young children) in parallel with proportionate increase in climate crises & environmental disasters.

PS- Mental health and Physical health are not distinct, separate categories. There is nothing that solely manifests in our mind or brain that is insulated, isolated & confined to these organs without impacting the rest of our bodies. Similarly, when an individual is sick, another individual or the land itself cannot be fully “healthy”. There is no separation between the mind and body. There is no hierarchy between organ systems such that the brain is the supreme coordinator— this is a colonial flawed ideology. When we’re distressed in any form— it manifests throughout our body, not just as sadness or anxiety confined to our “brain”. Similarly, it manifests outside of us on the land. Our maladies are connected & so is our liberation.

We will never get prescriptions for food, water, shelter, community care, & love (the things we need to heal)

Medicine gaslights us by diagnosing us as sick individuals while never addressing the social conditions that make us sick in the first place. Instead, we are bandaged up & sent back into a profoundly ill society where it is only a matter of time till we are back in the hospital again, often times with even worse health outcomes. Every societal system serves to point fingers at us or other humans framed as “the enemy” while conveniently distracting us from the oppressive systems responsible for our suffering.

Medicine addresses everything on an individual level- from diagnosis to management to treatment & this ends up being the most futile approach to address illnesses. This was extremely clear during the pandemic. Clearly medicine is fully aware of the futility of its existing infrastructure, framework & approach. Hospitals are overrun with severely ill patients with worsening outcomes being patched up by overworked, exploited healthcare workers who themselves are sick in ways they’ve mostly normalized.

To be clear- I believe there have been transformative discoveries made within medicine (from vaccines to antibiotics) which people have gotten to DESPITE capitalism, not because of it. However, the existing framework of medicine (a capitalist healthcare system) is not a prime, optimal foundation for health or innovation in any form. COVID-19 also made it obvious how even life-saving tools like vaccines cannot be deployed for healing when corporations are more concerned about their profits & patents.

This also begs the question, if medicine knows the current approach isn’t working, why hasn’t there been a wide-scale overhaul of the entire system (i.e. abolition)? If we can provide people with food, water, shelter & community— that can dramatically alter health outcomes, prevent illnesses, treat others. It can transform human health & by extension the planet’s health. So why does medicine not have a prescription for this? Why doesn’t insurance cover food which quiet obviously seems like a basic necessity you need to have to survive & have any level of baseline health? This is because: 1) sickness is more profitable than health and 2) medicine is loyal & bound to the same wealthy elite who control the state. They need medicine and therapy to get people back to work, not truly “heal” or care for people so that they can be free.

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The same systems that are making us sick are making the land & Earth itself sick

Capitalism/ colonialism have extracted exponentially from & brutalized the planet along with all of its inhabitants including humans. We’ve all been treated as objects that can be exploited for profit. This has undoubtedly taken a severe toll on our bodies as well as bodies of land & water or bodies of flora, fauna & microbes. The same state & corporate forces behind our pain, destroy ecosystems. We are also part of these ecosystems. Agro-corporations pump pesticides & herbicides into the land as fossil fuels pollute the air— this has the same impact on us as it does on the wellbeing of plants & animals ingesting these poisons while being cut-off from their natural habitats & survival resources.

SARS-CoV-2 is one of many newly emerging pathogens. Ecological damage caused by corporations (from deforestation to fossil fuel industries) is driving the rapid, increasingly frequent emergence of global epidemics & pandemics. COVID-19 didn’t just take a major toll on human health— it’s emergence itself was a direct result of the damage inflicted on land & planetary health.

Wildfires, persistent flooding, chronic droughts, landslides, extreme weather events like snow storms/ heat waves/ hurricanes/ tornadoes/ tropical storms/ cyclones, atypical climate fluctuations & dramatic oscillations (both rising temperatures in typically cold areas or decreasing temperatures in typically warm areas), tsunamis & earthquakes, chronic soil infertility & degradation, global species extinctions— these environmental/ ecological disasters are a form of chronic inflammation. These are disorders & illnesses manifesting in the Earth’s body. The land is sick. Just like our bodies rely on inflammation to heal from damage, our ecosystems are capable of adapting to environmental stressors but when the damage is constant & persistent, they are unable to regenerate effectively or sustainably. The Earth is trying its best to adapt to horrendous exploitation & damage.

Then there are disasters where corporate or state involvement is more obvious like oil spills in oceans, intentional polluting of public water systems or natural water ways with toxic industrial waste & chemicals, defective nuclear plants leaking cancerous radiation into surrounding areas, gas leaks or poisonous gas plant explosions, city of Atlanta attempting to destroy an urban forest to build a militarized cop training facility, the settler colonial apartheid state of Israel destroying Palestinian villages & their native vegetation while dumping toxic waste into Gaza, or the recent tragic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio that released cancerous chemicals into the air & soil. These crises make it clearer that land health is intimately connected to human health. We rely on the ground, soil, water ways & the air for sustenance from food to oxygen to water. When the land is poisoned, we are poisoned.

Natural disasters are not “natural” just like human illnesses are not rooted in “biological defects”

Ecological crises are often framed as “natural disasters” as though they occur unexplainably in a vacuum. The justifications for climate change & ecological destruction often follow the same bioessentialist logic that reduces depression to a random chemical imbalance or our distress to biological defects. These crises do not just happen. Both human diseases & the planet’s diseases impact certain marginalized communities at disproportionately higher rates. Nature is not arbitrarily unleashing vengeance on the poor or working class. Black & brown people are not just innately born “sicker”.

Our healing is tied to healing the land

The seed of sickness doesn’t lie in our bodies. Our bodies are doing what they were born to do— respond to harm the best they can. Our bodies are doing their best— in all their many diverse forms. The planet is doing it’s best to respond to capitalism’s destruction & ongoing devastation. The pathology lies in systems.

Colonialism severed us from the land & needed us to view other beings that are part of us as the “other”. From seeing nature as an external entity to seeing other individuals as being separate from us, we are taught to “other” the world around us. Such severance & disconnection from community & land is making us sick which also means an intentional forging of relationships to reconnect to each other can be incredibly healing. We’re taught to dismiss, overlook or neglect the importance of community, culture, & connection with our ecosystems. We’re taught to devalue caregiving & caretaking. Except our healing is entirely dependent on us forging reciprocal relationships.

The full video is for paid subscribers