Unnatural Causes

Unnatural Causes is “a seven-part documentary series exploring racial & socioeconomic inequalities in health” from 2008. In a horrible irony, the episodes are not available to the public. The cheapest way to see it is to pay $24.95 to FORA.tv for streaming. There doesn’t seem to be an option for buying the DVD from the main site unless you are an organization. I believe this is a mistake. The apparent goals of the producers would be better served by making the complete materials publicly available at no cost. You can watch some clips on their YouTube channel, which is good, but why not release everything, together with information on actions to take or links to further information? I don’t even remember where I heard about the series, and it wasn’t particularly easy to track down viewing options. The audience would be so much bigger if energy was devoted to spreading the videos rather than locking them up.

As I have now been lucky enough to see the complete series, here is a brief summary of the episodes:

1. “In sickness and in wealth”: The Whitehall Study is introduced. The Whitehall Study, which is frequently referenced throughout the series, found that health is associated with wealth, not just in a binary poor-vs.rich way, but in gradations all along the levels of wealth. The importance of a sense of control and a corresponding stress of social subordination are pointed to as people at varying levels of health and wealth are introduced in an American city. Also apparently there was some experiment that gave everybody colds by putting virus right into their noses – is that seriously an experimental technique that people use?

2. “When the bough breaks”: The stress of institutional and persistent racism is identified as a determinant of health. The example of low birth weights for babies born to black mothers is given. Also I noticed that the series is dedicated to the memory of Judy Crichton.

3. “Becoming American”: It is noted that Latino immigrants to America are initially healthier than other Americans, and tight families are given as a potential explanation. Also the Pennsylvania town that hosts the examples has some community center, and a youth center, which seem nice. Then it’s brought to light that immigrant health is much worse after five years, and also there’s some mention of mental illness.

4. “Bad sugar”: A community of Native Americans is the example of the episode, relevant because of very high levels of diabetes. The stress of being displaced by US forces, not dealt fairly with and essentially forced to eat a radically different and inferior diet, as well as the attendant problems of poverty, all contribute.

5. “Place matters”: Biggest takeaway was learning about the original redlining, which gave good home loans almost exclusively to white people from around 1934 to 1962. Grrr. The episode then talks about how bad neighborhoods are stressful; violence, mold, asthma, all suck. Everything is health policy. There’s also a pointing to the failure of private developers to provide what is really needed for people.

6. “Collateral damage”: This episode centers on the Marshall Islands, where US military involvement no longer sends showers of nuclear fall-out, but a base still dominates the economy to ill effect. Overcrowding on the adjacent island, which is essentially a slum compared to the island of the US base, leads to tuberculosis and other ailments. The people of the Marshall Islands can leave their homes and move the US (Arkansas is a popular destination, it seems) but health problems can continue there.

7. “Not just a paycheck”: Electrolux is a Swedish company that moved one factory from Michigan to Mexico and another from Sweden to Hungary. In Michigan this ruined a lot of lives, while in Sweden it was a comparatively small problem. Americans are less well protected by their government and their unions than the Swedes are by theirs, and the Americans have worse health outcomes. The American setting also illustrates increasing inequality as a family laid off from the factory lives on an old family farm that is increasingly surrounded by huge second homes of the rich.

This post was made possible through the generous support of the B. R. Schumacher Foundation.

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