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Capitalism Primes Our Bodies for Illness

Physician Rupa Marya and co-author Raj Patel’s new book examines the social and environmental roots of poor health.

As much of the world struggles to cope with the pandemic and its impacts, we speak with Dr. Rupa Marya and Raj Patel, co-authors of the new book, Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice, which examines the social and environmental roots of poor health. “Inflammation is the body’s appropriate response to damage, or the threat of damage,” says Marya, a physician and co-founder of the Do No Harm Coalition. “We’re learning that the social structures around us, the environmental, political structures around us, are tuning the immune system to sound out the full range of inflammation.” Patel adds that “capitalism primes bodies … for sickness.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The highly infectious coronavirus Delta variant is causing huge spikes in cases across the United States and around the world with China struggling to control surging infections and the Philippines preparing for a new, stricter lockdown. The United States is now averaging some 80,000 new COVID cases a day, about six times as many daily cases than a month ago. As much of the world struggles to cope with the pandemic and its impacts, we begin today’s show with the authors of a new book that examines the social and environmental roots of poor health. “Your body is part of a society inflamed,” write the authors. In a minute, we’ll speak with the co-authors of Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice, bestselling author Raj Patel and physician and activist Rupa Marya. But first, this is an animated introduction to their book by Aaron Kierbel.

NARRATOR 1: You wake up one morning with a dry, hacking cough and you have lost your sense of smell. You visit your doctor for a diagnosis. With an x-ray and nasal swab, she diagnosis COVID. The coronavirus infected your body, and your lungs and nerves are now inflamed.

NARRATOR 2: The inflammation sends you to hospital, and when you are in the ICU, you look around and notice a disproportionate number of people of color. In the United States, hospitalization and death rates for people of color are far higher than for white people. You make another kind of diagnosis yourself. This, you observe, is the outcome of structural racism. But how did those structures come to be?

NARRATOR 1: To understand that, we must go back 600 years to a time when a different pestilence spread across the globe, one that continues today and still makes us sick. And it makes us sick in a patterned way, through inflammatory disease which underlies all the leading causes of death in industrialized places.

NARRATOR 2: European colonization transformed the planet. Through slavery, genocide and disease, colonists brought with them a cosmology that changed how people relate to each other and to the living world around them. Those who resisted were set to the flame.

NARRATOR 1: This history lives inside you, whether you know it or not. Since you were conceived, your body has been exposed to the consequences of a world on fire.

NARRATOR 2: The COVID hospital ward and the specific patients who are in its beds look that way because of centuries of attempts to extinguish other kinds of knowledge and civilizations.

NARRATOR 1: If we understand disease with this new kind of diagnosis, the treatment options become radically different. The deep medicine we prescribe to address the inflammation of people and planet has been prescribed by others before us. Rudolf von Virchow and Sitting Bull and Frantz Fanon.

NARRATOR 2: Huda Sha’arawi and B.R. Ambedkar. And Harriet Tubman.

NARRATOR 1: They understood that our modern ills can’t simply be vaccinated away. We need a world rebuilt with care at its heart.

NARRATOR 2: But what does that look like? Many indigenous communities have resisted colonialism by continuing to care for the living world around them. Their care for life protects them inside and out.

NARRATOR 1: Indigenous communities defend the greatest range of biodiversity on the planet and as a result host the most diverse microbiota inside their bodies. These microbes confer protection against inflammatory disease.

NARRATOR 2: When culture isn’t capitalist and isn’t colonized, it can soothe the inflammatory diseases that afflict us and fuel the burning of our planet.

NARRATOR 1: Deep medicine offers new and old stories that connect humans to the teeming microbes in our guts and to the teeming stars in the skies. We offer a glimpse into cosmologies that bring a cooling balm.

NARRATOR 2: To a world, to societies and bodies that are—


AMY GOODMAN: That’s the animated introduction by Aaron Kierbel to the book Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice. For more we are joined by the book’s authors.
In Austin, Texas, Raj Patel is with us, Research Professor at the University of Texas’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, a Professor in the University’s Department of Nutritional Sciences, and a Research Associate at Rhodes University, South Africa. He is also the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System and the bestselling book The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy.

And in Berkeley, California, we are joined by Dr. Rupa Marya, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, where she practices and teaches internal medicine. She is a co-founder of the Do No Harm Coalition, a collective of health workers committed to addressing disease through structural change. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! This is an epic work. Raj, let’s begin with you in Texas. If you can talk about this connection between capitalism and the COVID pandemic?

RAJ PATEL: Thank you, Amy, for having us. For listeners and viewers who are unaware, one of the ways that the modern food system operates is through a sort of legacy of separating humans from the rest of the web of life. Now what that means is that humans feel, under capitalism and particularly under capitalist colonialism, to be free to exploit the world around us. We feel free to be able to do that because the rest of the web of life is just worth less than our profit motive. That is why, for example, 60% of current human infectious diseases come from pathogens that jump from one species to another, and the industrial food system incubates those kinds of diseases.

Now, while the jury is out around COVID, it is certainly the case that we have seen a vast array of diseases coming from the industrial food system. H1N1, for example, in 2009, was one example of a disease that emerged from a food system which is quite happy with treating the rest of the web of life as a disposable resource. And also quite happy in treating the working class as an expendable kind of insulation between the burn of disease and the needs of the rich and the Global North.

Now, when you have a kind of set-up that’s based on this 600-year process of exploitation and colonial domination, then you are preparing the world for pandemics not just of a virus, but also for the consequences of a virus reverberating through societies that are deeply unequal. And so we opened today’s show talking about the climate disasters that are happening around the world. Guess who it is that’s on the front lines of the climate crisis? It’s the same communities that are at the forefront, who have been predominantly exposed to the kinds of narratives, the kinds of exposures that render their body more ready to become susceptible to COVID.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us to the title. Dr. Rupa Marya, the title of your book, Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice. Talk about why you called it Inflamed and the kind of work you have been doing that shows the disparities that result from the system that we have.

DR. RUPA MARYA: Thank you for having us, Amy. I’m happy to be speaking to you today from the occupied territory of Huichin. You can see the West Berkeley Shellmound, which our friends are trying to save, the oldest inhabited site here in the Bay Area. So, inflammation is the body’s appropriate response to damage, or the threat of damage. And the leading cause of death and illness in industrialized places are all inflammatory disease, whether we’re talking about cardiovascular disease or cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, even suicide. All of these diseases have inflammation as a part of their process.

And we are learning now that the immune system is being primed for inflammatory disease through not just genetics, which is what we’ve been thinking about for many years. You know,, why do some people get autoimmune disease? Why do some people get inflammatory bowel disease? Why do some people get cancer? But now we are learning that the social structures around us, the environmental and political structures around us, are tuning the immune system to sound out the full range of inflammation.

And unfortunately, medical education is steeped in the same Enlightenment errors that Raj was just speaking of, separating humans from the web of life, separating civilization from nature. These kinds of false dichotomies and errors are a part of medical education today. And so while it is helpful that we are talking about structural determinants of health as we’re looking at the glaring disparities with the COVID crisis, we don’t learn in medicine where these structures came from or how to dismantle them. And that is really what deep medicine is. If we want to be making an impact on these structures, if we want to be making an impact on the health outcomes, we have to start working with communities who are already identifying the problems and leading the change. And so that is a brief summary of what we are doing in this book.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you can talk about the pandemic, Raj Patel, providing this kind of autopsy, of racial disparities in the country, the profound injustices in the system? In just a few moments, we will be linking up with Congressmember Cori Bush, who has been sleeping on the steps of the Capitol with a number of other people protesting the fact that the eviction moratorium was allowed to expire, threatening millions of people in this country. This, in the midst of a pandemic that is surging in this country.

RAJ PATEL: As we approach this expiration, one of the big ideas that we have in the book is particularly the way that capitalism primes bodies, as Rupa was saying, for sickness. And this expiration is going to drive more people into despair. But we already have the technologies of oppression that are geared towards sending the working class to despair.

Things like payday loans, for example. If you take out a payday loan for $300, you might end up paying upwards of $800, an APR of 400%. And we know that the stress of needing to repay these loans is causing ill health. To the extent that if we were to ban things like payday loans, then in the United States the suicide rate would fall by 2.1% and the fatal drug poisoning rate would drop by 8.9%. Now, that kind of ongoing stress is just a normal feature of the way that capitalism operates in the United States. And this moment of triggering the lapse of the eviction moratorium is going to drive yet more people to the abyss. But Rupa has been working, for example, in San Francisco, working with physicians and protesting with them around some of the eviction-related issues and the issues around the unhoused there.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Rupa Marya, if you can talk about that work for just about 30 seconds. Then we’re going to go to break. We’re going to go to Congressmember Cori Bush, who has been sleeping out on the Capitol steps for the last few days to protest this eviction moratorium expiring. And then we’re going to come back to the two of you.

DR. RUPA MARYA: The Do No Harm Coalition has been working very closely with the Coalition on Homelessness, with POOR Magazine, formerly unhoused folks, poor people who have solutions to the manufactured crisis of homelessness here. While London Breed has been celebrated for her response to COVID, over 8,000 people were left on the streets of San Francisco in the midst of wildfire and the pandemic. And so this is really a health crisis, and it’s an unnecessary health crisis. It’s going to jeopardize—it already is jeopardizing the health of so many people. So I applaud Cori Bush and her Bill of Rights for unhoused people. We need to look to formally unhoused and unhoused people for these solutions and follow their lead.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to her right now, but we hope you both will stay by. Dr. Rupa Marya and Raj Patel, co-authors of Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice. When we come back, we will go to the U.S. Capitol steps to speak with Congressmember Cori Bush, where she and others have been sleeping outside on the steps since Friday night to protest the house adjourning without passing another extension of the eviction moratorium for renters. This is the Democrat-controlled House. Stay with us.

[Music Break]

AMY GOODMAN: “I Don’t Want To Get Arrested” by Rupa & the April Fishes, whose music was described by the legendary Gil Scott-Heron as liberation music. Yes, that is our guest that we just spoke with, Dr. Rupa Marya.

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