Categories
Capitalism and Disease Mental Health Social Media Technology

Capitalism and Pandemics: a reflection on the depressive patterns of an overactive youth

Roland Topor. Titre Inconnu (ca. 1970)

By Carlos Solsona Ribes, BA, MA

In the history of psychiatry, the concept of anhedonia has been always identified as one of the main symptoms of the common clinical depression. This term could be briefly defined as the inability to feel pleasure, the lack of motivation and a meaningful agency in an absolute -physical and mental- sense. It is not just about mutable feelings or easily identifiable -and exploitable- mental states that would make a bunch of coaching gurus rich. A state of anhedonia is a very serious matter and it acts like a black veil covering every aspect of the patient’s life.

The condition that I would like to explore in this post is the opposite: depressive hedonia, the need for instant pleasure that always remains unsatisfactory. This concept is extremely interesting in order to understand our times and, especially, to start making sense of the life-changing mental health consequences of the succesive lockdowns that we suffer since March 2020. I would argue here that this kind of depressive behavior appears mostly in unemployed people and students during these pandemic times and, moreover, can be theorized as a consequence of the capitalist system.

The term depressive hedonia was coined by the philosopher and cultural critic Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism (2009), inspired by critical theorists of late capitalism like Naomi Klein, Simon Reynolds, Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Žižek but also well aware of the accelerationist theories of his former University of Warwick colleagues (most remarkably Nick Land). Unfortunately, Fisher made his cultural analysis, while he was himself suffering from severe clinical depression, an illness that made him take his life only a few years after the publication of Capitalist Realism. According to Fisher, we are living our everyday lives on the dawn of an era characterized by the constant need of stimuli, a fake dependency of networks – in the sense of the “need of being connected”- as well as a perpetual obsession with pursuing a (almost always immediate) high number of pleasures that would never be fulfilled. We prepare our mind to receive way more inputs, so to say, than our sanity and brain capacity can process. And this phenomena, more typical of the actual globalization than the late 20th century Post-Fordist model (although connected), of course, seems to be generating its own pathologies. With COVID-19, the world took a break and this constant flow of inputs, the need of instant satisfaction, was almost entirely translated to our digital devices and social networks, provoking in many ways a feeling of general tiredness and detachment from the everyday stimuli that were usually fulfilled in our free pre-COVID lives.

Roland Topor. Le voyage (1970)

As an obvious outcome, the actual situation is triggering a high amount of anxiety and discontent, thus threatening the mental health of the individuals, as well as distorting the collective behavior. This state of hedonia, the endless seeking of instant satisfaction that, like depression, is present in almost every our life-experiences and could mutate into a consistent health pathology.

Although there could be some exaggeration when we talk about the catastrophical depictions of bunches of people checking their phones in a restaurant instead of talking or eating, the truth is that something as simple as the unconscious and automatic gesture of prioritizing a smartphone notification for a second in a face-to-face conversation is becoming more usual than ever. In this sense, the depressive hedonia presents itself also as a condition that is characterized by the impossibility to focus on something minimally complex or time demanding -like reading a book or even a long article in a website without feeling anxiety- and, day by day, the vertiginous speed and change that we perceive as a sign of the times, accompanied with the pressure of feeling always short of time, is not only hurting us but also is distracting us from acting in a way that we feel constantly overwhelmed and stressed. According to The Wall Street Journal, COVID-19 changed dramatically the way we spent our time and a clear conclusion was shown: we are more screen-dependants and socially isolated than ever before: the three main leisure habits in 2020 were gaming, streaming videos (series, Youtube, documentaries and movies) and online shopping.[1]

How does this relate to the history of late capitalism and what is different now?

In the BBC documentary The Century of the Self (2002)[2] , which is probably one of the most brilliant audiovisual attempts of showing the direct relation between capitalism and social psychology, the filmmaker and video essayist Adam Curtis shows how the industries and the US government aligned to create the image of the “consumer” as the standard model of a perfect individual in which everybody has to look at, and it was done through technologies – via advertising campaigns and mass “distraction” tools- that he called engineering of consent (based on the book of the same name written by Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and inventor of the term propaganda). In this documentary we see how the collective desires were carefully manufactured by the companies in order to appeal the inner feelings of the masses with a promise of distinction and individuality (the subject was clear in that time). We see how the American Way of Life, an ode to the capitalist system, was established with the tools of the system and the aim of defending a one-dimensional paradigm.

But at that time the globalized and voracious capitalism of today was still far away, and with it the conception of a subject as a fixed entity. What is called the postmodern world, in a sense, matches perfectly with the development of the so-called turbo capitalism. The incessant wheels of capitalism are now rolling with a speed that was never imagined, the supply exceeds by far the demand, the products are less perennial than ever and everything related with “regularities” isn’t even considered in the abstract and speculative global market. Everything regarding human relations and our society feels more fluid[3], fragmented and hard to grasp. The limits are blurry, so are our minds. In our capitalism we aren’t like the consumers of the 20th century: they had choices and “idols”(even if they were made of plastic), a wish of a modellic life. If freedom, our freedom to consume, was the main thread that defined our identity, now with the COVID-19 and all the physical limitations that we experience, we feel like in a state of limbo, a subject without essence and attributes. Some theorists, like the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, are nowadays contributing to a heated discussion about the political dimension of our identity in times of restricted freedoms. He admonishes how authoritarian politicians are taking advantage of the situation in order to dispossess ourselves from the essence of our identities.

In any case, we have to admit that living in a post-COVID world is adding even more complexity to the situation: somehow we are ourselves the product and we feel the pressure of defining our place in a world that is changing now, more than ever, in a way than we couldn’t even grasp. In this mutation of the capitalist system, this normalization of the pressure, stress and depression, the acceptance that the dependencies that most hurt us are not only a natural consequence but also an artificial one that can be imposed from above via regulations. In fact, it is true that we still don’t know if this kind of “mental slavery” could be a mental health pathology, in clinical terms, but at least we could reflect on how the capitalist society has changed our way of living, specially in our troubled times, times that probably will challenge our definitions of freedom and time and force to redefine them. At least we have an interesting trend of critical thinkers trying to make sense of the nonsense without falling in the easy playground of the cynical relativist.

Literature

Mark Fisher: Capitalist Realism (2009)

Naomi Klein: The Shock Doctrine (2007) Adam Curtis: The Century of the Self (2002)- video documentary


[1]https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-covid-19-has-transformed-the-amount-of-time-we-spend-online-01596818846, accessed March 20 2021.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnPmg0R1M04&ab_channel=JustAdamCurtis, accessed March 20 2021.

[3] Or liquid, as Zygmunt Bauman popularized.

Categories
Health HIV Medicine Russia State

Communicating Disease: The Silenced Epidemic in Russia

Photo by Klaus Nielsen from Pexels

By Ksenia Kogler, BA

HIV/AIDS represents a major global health issue. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) about 38 million people in the world were diagnosed with HIV at the end of 2019. By June 2020, already 26 million of them had access to the antiretroviral therapy (ART), but unfortunately due to the COVID-19 pandemic there is a decrease in the progress of providing the therapy to people.[1]

In the Russian Federation, the number of infections is increasing since the beginning of the epidemic. By the end of 2019, the total number of Russians living with HIV reached 1.1 million according to the statistical data provided by the Federal Research and Methodological Centre for AIDS Prevention and Control. The HIV prevalence in the population increased accordingly, approaching 0.75% of the general population and 1.42% of the population aged 15-49 years[2], the highest number in Eurasia.

Mass media often uses the term “silenced epidemic.” The problem of communicating the disease lies also in the statistics. Officially, the term epidemic is used only when the amount of infected people is over 1% of the population, but in Russia, only in 13 regions more than 1% of residents are infected and in general in 35 regions HIV prevalence is above 0.5%, which makes it more difficult to use this term. However, in official documents the term epidemic has been used more often over the past years.

There is no doubt that one of the main steps for defeating the disease is to inform the population. In Russia, not only public awareness is insufficient, but also the state is reluctant to include the issue on the national agenda. Mass media, on the other hand, frequently uses misleading clichés, such as “plague of the 20th (21st) century” and “at-risk groups,” as well as discriminatory labels such as “homosexuals,” “drug addicts,” etc.

This negative framing has a history. In the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s, the common stereotype was that AIDS was a threat coming from the United States and Western countries as “a focus of the evils of the capitalist system.” In the headlines of articles from 1986 to 1994, the expressions “American syndrome,” “AIDS truck” and “plague from the West” were used. This representation of the disease has formed the opinion in the society that people with HIV/AIDS are very contagious, dangerous and dirty, which has entailed a certain “AIDSophobia,” as well as discrimination against people at risk and people living with HIV as well as their isolation. There is still a lack of awareness in the population about what HIV is, how the latter is different from AIDS and how the HIV virus can be transmitted. Furthermore, it is still little known that it is not a problem limited to homosexuals, drug users or sex workers.

In 2016 the Government of the Russian Federation approved the “State Strategy 2016: Countering the spread of HIV in the Russian Federation for the period until 2020 and beyond”[3], which declared HIV outreach a priority for primary HIV prevention. This strategy contained a specialized federal information resource to counteract the spread of HIV, which included large-scale communication campaigns, comprehensive communication projects, nationwide events, annual specialist forums, and the operation of a specialized information online portal on HIV and AIDS. Unfortunately, there is still no official data available about the results.

Vadim Pokrovsky, head of the Federal Research and Methodological Centre for AIDS Prevention and Control, commented in an interview in 2019 on another important problem that makes government officials reluctant to conduct extensive information campaigns. He explained: “The bet is on the religiosity of the population. The rules of behaviour should be in line with Christian traditions, which in itself, as some believe, should reduce the spread of HIV infection. But, as we can see, the epidemic does not depend on the fact that the so-called spirituality and ideology are promoted in Russia. Not a single official in our country has yet uttered the word “condom” in public. And condoms, by the way, are unaffordable for many in Russia. If it costs the same as a bottle of beer, then there is no telling what people will be more willing to buy with that money. It is necessary to lower the price and increase their availability to low-income people.”[4] The lack of sex education in Russia is one of the reasons why it is difficult to discuss the issue. Even within families, parents often avoid talking to their children about sex, hoping that the child will somehow find out on his or her own.

An excellent example to see the strong difference in discourse across different media platforms were two films on HIV released in 2020. The first film was released on 11 February on the YouTube channel of the well-known Russian journalist Yury Dud, who has become popular with his interviews with celebrities from various fields. The film features the stories of real people, explores the problem of stigmatization, and discusses not only preventive measures, but also testing and treatment methods. In addition, the contact details of the responsible centres and a strategy for dealing with a positive test result are given. In the documentary, accessible, simple, precise, and open vocabulary is used. The film went viral and has been watched by almost 20 million people. What is more, the film inspired a panel discussion on HIV prevention and treatment in Russia that was held in the State Duma on 21 February.

The second example is the HIV/AIDS prevention film, “AGAINST AIDS: The View of Two Generations. A value-based navigation” produced by the Moscow City Health Department on 1 December 2020. This film is aimed more at parents as it calls on them to talk more to their children about the issue in question. However, although the usual stereotypes are explained in the film, they still remain a focus. It also remains unclear, which role the state structures will play in providing this information to more parents, as this film was shown for discussion within universities.

Overall, a positive development can be seen in the provision of reliable information about HIV in Russia. Unfortunately, so far only outbreaks of public outcry have forced representatives of the authorities to pay more attention to the problem. In the meantime, much of the outreach work is done by NGOs in the Russian Federation, which actively use Instagram accounts as well as other social media to educate young people about the disease and its prevention, and to inform them about news and upcoming events related to the topic.

Bibliography:

AGAINST AIDS: The View of Two Generations. A value-based navigation. 2020 URL: https://youtu.be/_vcXKC0KJvA [Accessed: 07.02.2021]

Barysheva. E., Deutsche Welle. Why HIV-related deaths are on the rise in Russia. 2019. URL: https://p.dw.com/p/3NG65 [Accessed: 29.01.2021]

Federal Scientific and Methodological Centre for AIDS Prevention and Control., (2020) “HIV-INFECTION.” Information bulletin No 45. Moscow.

Government of the Russian Federation (2016). No 2203-r, Moscow. “State Strategy 2016: Countering the spread of HIV in the Russian Federation for the period until 2020 and beyond”

HIV in Russia (Eng & Rus subtitles). 2020. URL: https://youtu.be/GTRAEpllGZo [Accessed: 07.02.2021]

World Health Organization. HIV/AIDS. 2020. URL: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/hiv-aids [Accessed: 28.01.2021]

Yasaveev I.G., (2006) “The media and the HIV/AIDS situation in Russia.” Sociological Studies no. 12, pp. 89-94


[1] World Health Organization. HIV/AIDS. 2020. URL: https://www.who.int/news-room/factsheets/detail/hiv-aids [Accessed: 28.01.2021]

[2] Federal Scientific and Methodological Centre for AIDS Prevention and Control., (2020) “HIV-INFECTION.” Information bulletin No 45. Moscow.

[3] Government of the Russian Federation (2016). No 2203-r, Moscow. “State Strategy 2016: Countering the spread of HIV in the Russian Federation for the period until 2020 and beyond”

[4] Barysheva. E., Deutsche Welle. Why HIV-related deaths are on the rise in Russia. 2019. URL: https://p.dw.com/p/3NG65 [Accessed: 29.01.2021]

Categories
COVID-19 Diplomacy Geopolitics Health Humanitarianism International Health Latin America Medicine United States

Internationalizing Cuban Medical Internationalism

A doctor’s surgery in Jaimanitas, Cuba. Source: Soydcuba, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

By Nicolas Friden, BA

As many different countries choose many different approaches in order to fight the virus, it still remains a huge task, even for the majority of countries in the developed world. As countries with a functioning health care system like France or even Germany struggle to contain the outbreak of the virus.

If the Covid-19 epidemic has shown one thing, it might well be that despite our belief we cannot control any and every disease. While somehow most Western countries might come through this pandemic relatively unharmed, it has still shown us that we have a lot to learn about our approach to a functioning medical system.

One country that frequently eclipses the rest of the World when it comes to medical expertise and a functioning heath care system is Cuba. While many are aware that Cuban doctors are sent to a lot of different countries, especially poorer ones, the proportions of this aid and cooperation system are less known.

However, if this system of health cooperation is functioning so well, why don’t any of the major countries in the World aspire to imitate some of its aspects in order to improve their own health diplomacy? Is the capitalist world too stubborn to adopt good ideas from other systems?

While Cuba is a relatively poor country compared to most of the Western World, this has never been an excuse for not providing medical aid and medical assistance to those most in need in any part of the World. For example, as Hurricane George devastated Haiti in 1998, Cuba immediately sent a force of 200 medical staff to help the local population. But the Cuban model doesn’t stop at immediate medical relief. This is actually only the beginning. After the initial damage is more or less under control, Cuban doctors and medical staff usually stay there and begin to train and treat the patients in the devastated country so as to provide development assistance to the local health authorities. This includes the process of transmitting knowledge to the local population by either training staff on the ground, or, more importantly even, by providing local students with the chance to acquire a medical degree in Cuba. This allows fully trained medical personnel to come back and be able to help the local population where it is most needed.[1]

This feat is even more impressive if you consider that every single step of the way is free of charge. This is seen by some as a true act of solidarity to the ones that are most in need. This is particularly astonishing as Cuba didn’t have a lot of support and of trading partners after the Soviet Union collapsed. In the early 1990s, male body weight in Cuba fell by 20-25 pound on average and public transportation was cut by 80%. Still, even in these difficult times for the country, its foreign policy regarding health remained the same, and Cuba continued assisting others where and when they needed it. [2]

So why is it that Western countries are neither discussing nor adopting the Cuban model to some extent?

The two parts of this question might well be closely linked to each other, as the West and in particular the United States have always had a hard time accepting Cuba’s existence in the first place. Since Cuba has a socialist government, it was always viewed as a possible threat in Washington, which imposed a trade embargo on the country, already in 1958. Writing this in 2021, when the Soviet Union is long gone, and an East West divide is not so visible anymore, it is astonishing that this embargo remains in place.

This might be one reason why Western media and policy-makers remain reluctant to fully acknowledge the real role Cuba plays when it comes to global medical relief. This whole situation really is an indictment on most powerful Western governments, as they remain unable to even acknowledge that their way of thinking might not be the best or even the only way.

As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on stronger than ever (especially in the United States, the one country that will not in any case acknowledge Cuba’s know-how or accept its existence), the Cuban situation compared to the rest of the World remains under control for the moment and Cuba is only waiting for the opportunity to help its neighbours[3].

It remains difficult to see a change of course for the United States, when it comes to its relationship with Cuba and its reluctance to accept any kind of help or advice coming from this country, but maybe if the rest of the World starts implementing some Cuban medical policies, the US eventually could follow the same path.


[1] John M. Kirk, “Cuban Medical Internationalism and Its Role in Cuban Foreign Policy,” Diplomacy & Statecraft 20, no. 2 (August 5, 2009): 275–90.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Worldometers.info/coronavirus