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An echo from the Victorian past

Californian cities are full of shit.  I don’t mean figuratively full of shit.  I mean California really does have a public health problem with human shit fouling pavements and drains as a result of the lack of facilities for the state’s exploding homeless population.  As Nathan Robinson reported in the Guardian earlier this year:

“Sightings of human feces on the sidewalks are now a regular occurrence; over the past 10 years, complaints about human waste have increased 400%. People now call the city 65 times a day to report poop, and there have been 14,597 calls in 2018 alone…

“A city covered in poop is so disgusting it has to be almost comical. But the uptick in street defecation is the symbol of a human tragedy. People aren’t pooping on the streets because they have suddenly forgotten what a bathroom is, or unlearned basic hygiene. The incidents are part of a broader failure of the city to provide for the basic needs of its citizens, and show the catastrophic, socially destructive effects of unchecked inequality.”

Pavements covered in human poop are merely the visible signs of an impending public health disaster.  The return of large numbers of human fleas – which thrive in cold and insanitary conditions – is fuelling a growing typhus (not to be confused with typhoid) epidemic.  As Andrew Blankstein and Dennis Romero at NBC report:

“The number of patients in Los Angeles’ typhus outbreak has surpassed 100, according to figures compiled by NBC News… In the 2000s the number of patients diagnosed with typhus in Los Angeles county ‘did not exceed 20 cases per year,’ according to a county report. Observers say there’s a correlation between the rise of typhus and the area’s 47 percent increase in homelessness since 2012…

“Nearly one in 10 area cases, according to the county’s health department figures, was centered downtown, where squalid conditions in the skid row neighborhood, including piles of trash and conspicuous rats, have been blamed for exacerbating the outbreak.”

So far, nobody has died from typhus – an unpleasant condition that can be treated with antibiotics.  However, the same conditions that have allowed typhus to thrive have also given rise to potentially lethal conditions.  For example:

“In 2012, the rats nests, human waste and hypodermic needles got so bad on skid row that county health officials cited the city for health code violations and filthy conditions that the county later said contributed to a Hepatitis A outbreak.”

California is little different to a third world country these days.  There is a privileged affluent minority who work within or sell services to California’s world-leading tech industry; an industry owned and run by the USA’s tiny elite whose collective wealth is greater than the bottom half of the world population.  And in close proximity geographically but economically worlds away at the other end of the scale is a growing majority of people who are either already on skid row or desperately clinging to the precarious cliff edge that leads there.  The old middle and skilled working classes that brought stability in the post war years has been hollowed out, giving rise to conditions not dissimilar to those in Victorian England; where public health problems were an everyday occurrence.

What California’s affluent class appears to have forgotten, however, is that diseases tend not to discriminate.  Because while it is true that statistically the homeless and the poor are far more likely to develop infectious disease, nobody – not even the insanely rich – is exempt.  This is why from the late nineteenth century public authorities in Britain introduced a conveyor belt of public health reforms that culminated in the publicly-funded and free at the point of delivery National Health Service – not, primarily, to treat the illnesses of the poor; but to prevent the diseases of the poor spreading to the homes of the wealthy.

Faced with insanitary, disease-infested conditions just a stone’s throw from their downtown office blocks, California’s tech godzillionaires recently vociferously opposed measures – Proposition C – to ameliorate the worst of the homeless crisis.  As Laurie Clarke at Tech World explains:

“Homelessness is not just a social issue that afflicts the city, it’s also a public health issue. Among homeless populations, diseases commonly experienced include tooth infections, trench foot, and body lice at one end of the scale, and tuberculosis and hepatitis A at the other…

“Yet despite all of this, many of the city’s resident tech giants came out in opposition of Prop C, with Stripe, the self-proclaimed ‘woke’ ridesharing company Lyft and Twitter all generously funding an opposition campaign. Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, even voiced his outrage on social media at the idea of paying, despite his company being a long term beneficiary of ample tax breaks gifted by the city.”

British readers might be surprised that Democrat-supporting tech CEOs in Democrat-controlled California should be so hostile to the homeless.  The assumption on this side of the pond being that the Democrat Party is left of centre when on many issues they are more right-wing than the UK Tory Party.  Activists in the Homelessness Coalition that succeeded in adding Proposition C to State law have another name for them:

“’Much like Trump uses immigrants and Muslims, so our downtown interests tend to do a lot of hateful campaigns against homeless people,’ says Jennifer Friedenbach, CEO of the Coalition for Homelessness, one of the main bodies behind Prop C. She says that the city’s politicians are known derisively as ‘San Francisco Democrats’, to imply that in reality, they’re more closely aligned with Republicans.”

Even if Proposition C goes ahead, it will be little more than a sticking plaster for a growing homelessness problem that is spreading across the developed states.  And as with so many other aspects of the current crisis of Western civilisation (resource depletion, energy shortages, climate change, etc.) this one is unlikely to be properly addressed until we see a return of Victorian epidemics like cholera, typhoid fever and dysentery making their way off skid row and into the hallowed boardrooms of our tech lords and masters and into the debating chambers of their political hirelings.  At which point, we can only hope that those people get to learn first-hand what “antibiotic-resistant” means.

As you made it to the end…

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