Poverty: The Human Equivalent of Climate Change?


The attached article caught my eye, especially the sections set out below, for the reasons stated afterwards:

Doctor Sir Harry Burns was the Scottish government’s chief medical officer for nine years until 2014 and he has made the study of health inequalities in society the defining characteristic of his lifetime of work. He wants governments to underpin their approach to meeting the challenge of deprivation with science. “The seeds of deprivation are sown very early in life. Chaos and uncertainty and poor parenting produce a range of biochemical processes that lead to a reduced ability to learn, to engage socially, and to an increased exposure to acquiring chronic disease in later life. We’re seeing this in some parts of Glasgow,” he says.

“Studies have shown that the brains of young animals which are neglected or exposed to threat develop differently. The parts of the brain connected to learning and empathy don’t develop properly. In the field of genetics it’s been shown that the lower down the social scale you are, the faster your DNA ages. All around the world where people have looked at this there is a consistent story. Difficult circumstances in early life lead to bad outcomes, and not just in health.

“There is nothing special about Glasgow. We’ve just had a bigger dose of this. When people lose their traditional ways of living, when they are disconnected from their traditional structures, they take drugs and start fighting. When you talk to young men of 17 and 18 in places like Polmont Young Offenders Institution, they consider their lives finished.”

It is a part of my narrative that we correct social dysfunction by finding solution to the immediate problem, without emotive reference to and the granting of exceptions due to historical disadvantage and prejudice.

For example, I believe the answer to the bad relationship in some parts of the US between police and the communities they serve is best addressed by notions such as citizen design of policing. And, if we improve the behavior of police towards all, then no special exemptions need to be entertained with respect to a community which talks of 400 years of oppression, risk and prejudice.

But, what if I’m wrong? What if disadvantage causes not merely an immediate emotional dysfunction, but a long-term medical one? Is it the case that exceptions should be made? Or, that I am still right (so that we do not create new inequalities)? But that any addressing of social justice inequality counts for nothing if not accompanied by dramatic improvement in economic circumstance and opportunity? Can I truly divorce the two?


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