Category Archives: Social Exclusion

The control of social goods so as to marginalise.

How do you make a grown man cry?

Answer: Give him £20.

You look baffled — like you missed the punchline to a joke. There was no joke and you didn’t miss anything. Although I have a perniciously dark sense of humour, this is not an example of it.

Outside a supermarket, in South London, there was a man begging. I had a £5 note amongst a couple of twenties and I fished it out and gave it to him. He looked grateful for this small windfall and tucked it away in one of the many folds in his layers of clothes.

COVID-19 has pushed people out of their jobs and out of their homes. The lockdown has reduced pedestrian traffic on the streets, closed public toilets, and made life even harder for the homeless than it was before.

He and I did not catch up on the state of business, but I imagine there were not many people giving him £5 notes. By the time I’d finished my shopping, he had already bundled his belongings together and headed off — I surmised, for food — and in his place was a new face.

I saw the new guy and my immediate thought was, “Yeah, Nah”. I did what anyone would do in these circumstances. I ignored him. I made no eye contact. I pretended I had not heard his polite request for help, and I headed down the street.

Before you judge me, let me remind you, I had already given away my £5 note and all I had left were the twenties. There were also other prospective givers, who felt no compulsion. If they weren’t giving, maybe they knew something about him that I didn’t — some mark or taint that made him less deserving of charity. I felt OK about the decision. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “because there are many in necessity, and they cannot all be helped from the same source, it is left to the initiative of individuals to make provision from their own wealth, for the assistance of those who are in need.” And I had already done my provisioning for the day.

Two hundred meters down the road, I thought to myself, “you arsehole”. And I walked back. I retrieved a £20 note from my wallet and I folded it so it could be passed to him more discreetly. As I got closer I was struck by how lifeless he looked. Huddled, still, and head bowed. He was not looking about anymore. He was not begging. He was spent.

I put my hand out with the money and he reached for it mechanically. Head up to say, thank you. Looked at his hand. Looked again. Started to say, thank you, and burst into tears. There is something profoundly wrong with a grown man being that grateful for £20 — a breach of protocol — so I joined him.

Covid Economics

“Governments will not be able to minimise both deaths from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and the economic impact of viral spread.” [Anderson et al.]

A soup kitchen during the Great Depression. Apparently it was only men who were hungry

It is easy to see that the economies of the world are being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Share-markets have tumbled. Airlines are flying empty. Except for bizarre panic buying of toilet paper, malls and shops are more deserted. And if you have an employer with a large cash reserve and a bit of heart, you will be OK. There are many companies, however, that are at the margins and they are already failing because of the impact of COVID-19. Households are hunkering down: not spending, not going out.

These are the consequences of containment.

Now think about the daily wagers and piece workers, the sex workers, couriers, garbage pickers, rickshaw drivers and maids. Who will pay their bills, put food on their tables and ensure the same for their children?

Workplaces are instituting attendance rules based on health guidelines. Fevers, coughs, headaches and myalgia? Stay home! Recently been with someone who tested positive. Stay home! Etcetera.  That’s fine for me. I will apply for sick leave. In all countries, but disproportionately in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, large numbers of people in the workforce are in the informal sector. They are vulnerable. Even in the formal sector, many workers have no financial protection.

Think again about the daily wagers and piece workers, the sex workers and couriers. Their capacity to pay the bills and keep food on the table is proportional to their capacity to keep working. No matter what.

Death is not everything.

The obligation of countries who have committed to sustainable development goals is to “leave no one behind”. Governments should implement their public health measures to limit the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the poor should not have to carry an unfair burden.

A street sweeper in Mokhali

The “underserved” are “undeserved”

I hate the phrase, “the underserved”. I would love to remove it from the lexicon of public health. But it appears to be here to stay, particularly in North America where there is even a journal devoted to them.

A girl with kwashiorkor during the Nigerian-Biafran War (Public Domain; Wikipedia).

On a number of occasions in public lectures I have played with the phrase using a comparison of the “undeserved” and the “underserved”. It usually takes listeners a few minutes to work out that I am not repeating myself over and over again. And if you thought I had typed the same thing twice, look again. “underserved”≠”undeserved”.

My spell-checker knows the difference. It tells me that “underserved” is a spelling error and I almost certainly mean “undeserved”, and herein lies the problem. It is not simply that these two words look and sound similar, it is that there is an unpleasant semantic connection between them. It seems to depend where you lie on the political spectrum which term you use to refer to the same group of people.

On the left, the powerless and the left-behind, those with poor access to services and care would be characterised as the underserved. On the right of politics (or a nationalist left where refugees and migrants are vilified) anyone in need, the powerless and the left-behind, those with poor access to services and care are more typically characterised as the undeserved. The same people, the same need, and the same suffering, but a more or less generous view of our social obligations.

 

Would you give knee surgery to the FAT MAN?

I do understand your plight, Mr Smith.  An arthritic knee can be extremely painful.  And you say it’s so bad you can’t even walk from the living room to the kitchen.  That’s actually very good news!  Yes, yes … awful … but terribly good news. If you can’t walk to the kitchen, you can’t eat. If you can’t eat you’ll lose weight.  And the faster you lose weight, the sooner we’ll schedule your knee surgery.

On 15 March 2017, Dr David Black, NHS England’s medical director for Yorkshire and the Humber, sent a letter of praise to the Rotherham Clinical Commissioning Group (RCCG).  The RCCG had decided to restrict the access to smokers and “dangerously overweight patients” of hip and knee surgery.  The letter was leaked, and it has triggered, according to the Guardian, “a storm of protest.”

The title of this blog is a play on David Edmond’s book, Would you kill the fat man, an exploration of moral philosophy and difficult choices about the valuation of human life. The RCCG’s decision intrigued me. It was essentially a decision about rationing a finite commodity — healthcare. In a world of plenty, rationing healthcare is a non-question.  In the real world, however, in a world of shrinking healthcare budgets and a squeezed NHS, resources must be allocated in a way that means some people will receive less healthcare or no healthcare.  Fairness requires that the rules of allocation are transparent and reasonable.

While you ponder, whether you would give knee surgery to the FAT MAN, I have a follow-up question.  Would you want to see a doctor who would deny you knee surgery because of some characteristic of yours unrelated to whether you would benefit from knee surgery?

I am sorry Mrs Smith, today we decided not to offer clinical services to women, people under 5’7″, or carpenters. We need to cut the costs of our clinical services, and by excluding those groups, we can save an absolute bundle.

I have heard it said of the doctor, academic and human rights advocate, Paul Farmer, that he would regularly re-allocate hospital resources from Boston to his very needy patients in Haiti.  He used to raid the drug stocks of a Boston hospital, stuff them in his suitcase and fly them back to his patients in Haiti.  I have no idea if the story is true or not. It does mark, however, one of the great traditions of medicine.  The role of a doctor is to advocate vigorously for the health (and often social) needs of the patient.  The patient actually in front of them.  The one in need.  Because, if your doctor will not advocate for your health needs, who will?  This is why all the great TV hospital dramas show a clash between the doctor and the hospital administrator.  Administrators ration.  Doctors treat.  The doctor goes all out to save little Jenny, against all odds.  The surly hospital administrator stands in front of the operating room, hand outstretched and declares (Pythonesque): “None shall pass.”

Under the current NHS system of clinical commissioning groups, there are family doctors who are simultaneously trying to make rational decisions about the allocation of limited resources to a population, and trying to be the best health advocates for the patient in front of them.  That screams conflict of interest. If you live in the catchment area of the RCCG and want my advice, check out which doctors are part of the RCCG.  If your doctor is one of them, change doctor immediately. Treating you, advocating for your health interests is what you need and should want.  Unfortunately, if she is part of the RCCG when she is treating you, you are not her principal concern.  Run(!) assuming of course that you don’t need knee surgery.

Should smokers and overweight people receive knee surgery?  Let’s start with smokers.  Why would you not want to treat a smoker?  It is difficult to come up with arguments that are not so outrageous that they are embarrassing to make. But I won’t let personal embarrassment get in the way of stating the top two silly arguments that came to mind:

  1. Smoking is a disgusting habit and anyone who smokes deserves all the pain they get?
  2. Smokers won’t live as long as non-smokers, so the investment in surgery to reduce pain and improve mobility in smokers will not have the net benefits to society as the same investment in non-smokers.

The arguments for restricting the surgery to people who are not overweight are similarly cringe-worthy.  There are also clinical reasons for prioritising the overweight.  The load on joints resulting from increased weight creates greater wear-and-tear and, the broader inflammatory processes that obesity triggers also seem to increase the risks of osteoarthritis — affecting hands as well as knees.  [See for example, here and here].

I can’t find the RCCG’s arguments for restricting access to knee surgery for smokers and people who are overweight, but prima facie it looks a lot like a variant of victim blaming.

Full disclosure.  I am all for the rational allocation of resources.  I think smoking is a disgusting habit. I am overweight and trying to do something about it.  I also think that the arguments for resource allocation need to be more explicit about the social values upon which they are often implicitly based.