Healthcare’s Neoliberal Death Warrant

Neoliberalism’s mantra of “privatizing everything in sight” and elimination, or cutbacks of governmental programs, a.k.a, austerity, especially public healthcare, is a death warrant for millions, maybe more than millions!

Sure-fire, whenever private interests take control, or cut funding for public welfare programs, similar to what Democratic and Republican neoliberal advocates have consistently advocated ever since the 1980s, all hell breaks lose.

For example, elimination of Glass-Steagall (Clinton administration, 1999) is only one of several examples of cutting a program that protected public interests gone bonkers (in 2007-08.) It only took a little over a decade to come apart at the seams. But, as will be examined herein, cutbacks to public funding for healthcare stands to be much more diabolical than enormous losses of money in the markets, where bankers always manage to lose their way, which is exactly why the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 was so important! It kept banks, where people deposit their savings, out of the casino.

A recent article in The Nation ((“Zika. Bird Flu. Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs” by Sonia Shah, July 4, 2016)) details how private interests have captured, and control, the world’s primary sources of public healthcare. The article clearly spells out the inherent risks of a narrowly defined profit-minded out-of-control neoliberal mindset to the detriment of public health, a death warrant for the general population unwittingly issued by private moneyed interests.

Shah’s article is a clarion call (not stated as such within the article, but implied) for a return of healthcare funding and control via the public domain, not private moneyed interests. In fact, they’re already screwing it up!

According to Shah’s article: “Experts are bracing for a catastrophic pandemic— one that will sicken 1 billion, kill 165 million and cost trillions of dollars.” Yes, numbers are merely numbers, but those numbers are off the charts!

The referenced healthcare dilemma runs deep and reflects upon neoliberal theory, which holds that “the least government is the best government,” the foundation of Milton Friedman’s theories launched like a rocket ship into the public domain in the 1980s by President Reagan and PM Thatcher, both agents of supplication to privatization interests at the expense of the downtrodden masses, forever more.

According to Shah’s article:

The failure originated in the 1970s rise of neoliberalism and the $300 billion pharmaceutical industry, and the resulting stranglehold that private interests have placed on the independence and integrity of our public-health institutions. That stranglehold has left us vulnerable to Zika, as well as to new kinds of drug-resistant superbugs, avian influenza, and other emerging pathogens.

Already, private interests have hijacked public health organizations, for example, the World Health Organization (WHO), which since 1948 eliminated global smallpox and slashed deaths from measles, tetanus, pertussis, diphtheria, and polio by up to 98%.

But, when the WHO challenged vested interests in marketing of infant formula, pesticides, and tobacco in the 1970s-80s, wealthy industrialized countries accused the WHO of becoming “politicized.” Thereafter, starting in the 1990s, UN donor nations cut funding, and “WHO’s ability to stanch epidemics in the face of rising private power steadily declined… The lesson to the public-health community has been clear, if unstated: Challenge private interests and watch your funding vanish” (Shah).

Ironically, many public health agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) now secure funding from private interests, which turns into a whacko scenario of vested interests running the show.

The WHO is now largely donor-control over how funds are allocated. Private donors now account for more than 75% of funding. Budgeting is no longer allocated in proportion to the global health burden, leading to misallocation of funds and not tackling serious worldwide diseases at the source, which the WHO did so effectively for 50 years, for example, eliminating smallpox.

The recent Ebola scare (11,315 dead spread over six countries) is a prime example of an epidemic that got way out of hand, whereas in years past the WHO would have reacted much more quickly and thoroughly. (For an aside, imagine the uproar if 11,315 Americans died of Ebola.)

As for another example of misallocation of medical research funding, the National Cancer Moonshot $1 billion Initiative of 2016 ignores cancer prevention, which should be tackling obesity, smoking, and alcohol, which are tied to fast-food, tobacco and liquor industries. However, the initiative, headed by a former Pfizer executive, instead emphasizes “finding new treatment drugs” for the resultant health problems. Hence, the $1 billion effort avoids the root cause of disease; thereafter researchers keep fingers crossed hopefully to discover a cure after the disease manifest. Hmm, that seems kinda backwards, but it puts a lot of money into the pockets of pharmaceutical companies over the course of human lifetimes whereas prevention does not.

Epidemic Failure: A Creepy Concern

Still and all, the most threatening, looming risk to society, including well-to-do as well as the downtrodden masses, is epidemic failure, which may wipe out wide swaths of rich and poor alike.

This issue revolves around the rise of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, in part, because of nonmedical use of antibiotics. “Today, 80% of antibiotics in the United States are used for commercial purposes—for example, to fatten livestock for the market faster.” Over time, the horrifying result is microbes evolve and develop a resistance to that same antibiotic as used for humans.

For example, the gene MCR-1 has compromised colistin. Colistin is an antibiotic of last resort or the final line of defense for humans when all else fails, taming the most highly drug-resistant infections, like after an open-heart procedure when nothing else works against an infection.

MCR-1, the fiendish gene that allows dangerous bacteria to resist colistin, was discovered in pigs in China, where 12,000 tons of colistin is used in agriculture every year to fatten ‘em up. Subsequently, the lethal MCR-1 gene has already been discovered in 12 countries.

This is a prime example of the profit incentive causing the loss of a front-line lifesaving treatment. Evidently, by using 12,000 tons of a human antibiotic per year on pigs, over time, a freakish monster evolves, meaning, enzymes that break down the antibiotic itself, also implying fat pigs equal dead people!

Colistin is the last agent used to combat bacteria that are resistant to the strongest antibiotics. Colistin has remained the best tool available to treat multidrug resistant bacteria because bacteria were not exchanging genes for its resistance… Alarms sounded in the microbiology community in late 2015 when the first transferrable gene for colistin-resistance was identified in China. Since the report, the global health community has monitored and searched for the occurrence of this gene in the food supply and in humans. This colistin-resistance gene has been reported in Europe and Canada and, as of now, is reported in the U.S. ((“First Discovery in United States of Colistin Resistance in a Human E. Coli Infection”, The U.S. Military HIV Research Program, Science Daily, May 26, 2016.))

Countries that restrict antibiotic use to medical purposes only do not report drug-resistant superbugs. But, regulating use of antibiotics for only medical purposes cuts into profits of livestock and pharmaceutical industries. There’s that word “profit” once again, undercutting healthcare. Sensibly, publicly funded health research does not focus on profits, which is why neoliberals hate public funding.

Another “last gasp” antibiotic that saves human lives, carbapenem, is also under attack by genes, which are mobile and susceptible to mixing with other bacterial strains. In fact, carbapenem-resistant strains are already found in the U.S.

Health officials are watching in horror as bacteria become resistant to powerful carbapenem antibiotics— one of the last drugs on the shelf. ((“Antibiotic Resistance: The Last Resort”, Nature, July 24, 2013.))

The Nightmare Bacteria

Bottom line, “Once a colistin-resistant strain exchanges genes with a carbapenem-resistant one, the likely result is a ‘nightmare bacteria’ that no antibiotic can tame, the CDC says” (Shah). Observers claim it’s only a matter of when, not if.

Imagine a horror film of people dying left and right because of a rampant “nightmare bacteria” that cannot be treated because of gene mutations, and the scene is set.

Under the circumstances, even minor injuries and common infections could kill patients. And, medical procedures like a knee-replacement would entail a major risk of infection that cannot be cured and could lead to death. A sudden death syndrome will haunt society like The Black Death pandemic of the 14th century that killed 75 to 200 million people, but the world’s population then was only 500 million.

Double-bottom line: The desperate need for new antibiotics is not as profitable for drug companies as developing drugs that sick patients take for months or years. A new antibiotic might have market value of only $50 million whereas a prescription drug for heart disease is worth billions. This profit motive disrupts the dire necessity of finding new antibiotics to challenge drug-resistant bacteria as 15 of the 18 largest drug companies have dropped the antibiotics market altogether. Imagine that! Aren’t they supposed to be drug companies? But, the profit motive (a hallmark of neoliberalism) prevents them from discovering the most widely used drugs for the most people at the front line of attack, and as a result, a pandemic may be unstoppable, which, by way of comparison, will make concerns about terrorists look like toddlers in playpens.

Maybe public funding of disease prevention is not such a bad idea after all.

Wherever, whenever the neoliberal principle “the least government is the best government” interrupts, bans, underfunds or privatizes good, solid government societal programs, all hell breaks lose, like clockwork.

And, oh by the way, watch out social security and Medicare! Neoliberal advocates that preach “privatization of everything in sight” are eyeballing those longstanding social welfare programs!

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Robert.