19 March, 2015

Bill Gates and The New Yorker: advertorial journalism at its finest

The Gates Foundation has been out and about, promoting vaccination. With a backlash from parents cautious about the increasing amount of vaccines being given to children, they have also seemingly started to put advertorial pieces in magazines like the New Yorker. Rather than persuade people, however, I’d argue that these kinds of advertorial journalism, funded by big foundations, actually work to alienate people from the causes they are advocating.

The piece about vaccines that ran in the New Yorker is a mixture between the fine, old fashioned public service announcements crossed with a bit of authoritarianism: “Vaccinate your kids immediately, (stupid) parents.” Before this, the New Yorker also ran a piece about the Bill Gates and his new interest in recycled water. The piece then cleverly mixes up Monsanto’s bio-engineering, implying that both water recycled from sewage, and genetically modified seeds, inspire unreasonable disgust in people even when they are both perfectly safe.

The problem with this kind of juxtapositions, of course, is that its immediately apparent to any rational adult who’s been paying attention to these topics that recycled water, which is in fact safe to drink, is very different from Monsanto, which is a virulent global transnational corporation that has been rampaging throughout the world destroying farmers’ seed stocks with its genetically modified terminator seeds. Uh-uh, New Yorker—not the same thing at all, and just by putting those two things close to each other doesn’t wash away the global disgust people feel for Monsanto.

The vaccine piece that admonishes parents for not vaccinating their children also does not address the underlying unease that parents have with the pharmaceutical industry.

With new vaccines being developed like software, and new and untried pharmaceutical companies expecting to make mega-profit lining up at the stock market to offer their latest invention to the discerning stock-and-bond buyer, there is a sense of uncertainty about where exactly the vaccine enterprise is heading. This is no longer the days of the good doctors spending hours at the laboratories to come up with vaccines that save millions of lives. The process has now become highly commercial, actively traded in Wall Street with an eye to profit. And when that happens, the trust the public had in the good, old-fashioned pioneers of medicine erodes.

A colleague of mine, who had recently had a child, was telling me about the vaccines available in the market. Although there was the option of getting it for free (or perhaps very low cost), her husband insisted they get the expensive version. “I feel it’s the same thing, but of course I couldn’t say “no” since its my child and I didn’t want to appear like I didn’t care about my child in a matter like this,” she says. But, she added, the costly vaccines were very expensive. And increasingly, this is going to the choice that hits people in Third World countries: that although they know, rationally, the government subsidized vaccines are just as good (perhaps even better), there will be social pressure to buy the more expensive kind. And in places where a few hundred dollars are hard to come by—this is how much the “expensive” vaccines cost—then its going to lead to soaring health costs for already fragile budgets.

With the ebola crisis, it is even more clear to the “conspiracy theorists” amongst us—and I’d say by now the majority of the world believes in conspiracy—that until the opaque workings of the nation-security agencies of the US are revealed, the public cannot trust that disease is not being mobilized as a weapon of war against entire regions of the world. The CDC lists the ebola virus as an “invention” and holds a patent to it—their claim is searchable on Google. If the ebola virus is an invention, that what else can be invented? What other sorts of bio-technology tha could be used as weapons of war to destabilize entire regions are in the making? To add to the mess, the CIA used the polio vaccination program in Pakistan as a front to conduct its activities, leading to the erosion of community trust in vaccines in an already poor region. Until the US’s myriad dark agencies, including DARPA, come into the open and explain exactly what they are working upon, the public is going to remain suspicious, and the trust people once had in public health interventions are going to erode.

This means Mr. Gates cannot simultaneously be a vaccine evangelist on the one hand, and then buy Monsanto stocks on the other. Monsanto, of course, seems to have its fingers in myriad sticky pies, including bio-engineering and pharmaceuticals. This is known as “conflict of interest.” If he’s really the philanthrophic figure he projects himself to be, Mr Gates cannot simultaneously buy stocks and share in a for-profit company that has a morally questionable history. Philanthropy has its own ethical guidelines, one that cannot be washed away with recycled water or by calling its critics stupid.

If the trust the public had in vaccines is to be restored, there should be strict guidelines that ban companies from trading in speculative profits on vaccines. The task of creating new medicines should return to the non-profit sector, with the pharmaceutical world tightly controlled through regulations about how much profit it can make from a medication.  And the SEC must ban Wall Street from listing the offerings of pharmaceutical companies.


A few months ago, my boss, a young Australian woman with a very cool approach towards life, showed up at work and said: “I hope none of you are pregnant.” We all looked at her enquiringly. “If so, you should know that my two year old daughter has just been diagnosed with chicken-pox.” Apparently pregnant women should stay away from chicken-pox patients.

Later, when she was dropping me off in her car, I asked her why she hadn’t vaccinated the child. She said she’d been about to, but the child got the disease before she could get her shots. Then she said: “You know, I was talking to a friend of mine, and she said: getting this disease is like getting rid of bad karma. Its not a bad thing—it cleanses the body of bad toxins.” I nodded. It appeared, on a metaphysical level, to make sense.

I have a document of my immunization record. In it, I see my parents gave me my shots: the MMR, the DPT, and the BCG shots. I also got the polio vaccine.

Despite this, however, I came down with measles as a child. In boarding school in Kurseong, Darjeeling, cooped with lots of other children in unhygienic conditions, I contracted not just measles, but also twice got the chickenpox. Which meant the MMR shot I received as a child was basically useless.

It wasn’t the most pleasant time of my life—I was up on a hilltop in a small hospital in a small town in Darjeeling, looking longingly at the family of the hospital administrator who sat down every day with her husband and children to have their evening meals, while we were shut up in the next room with meagre rations and not much else, in a scenario rather sadly reminiscent of Jane Eyre. The good thing about these long, unending months of hospitalization, however, was the fact that I seem, in adulthood, to have better resistance towards disease. Now I don’t want to make that a scientific hypothesis without actually doing a large scale clinical study—but a casual head count of my friends tells me that those who were sick as children appeared to have better resistance not just towards physical viruses, but also in their approach towards being healed.

Disease in modern societies generates a lot of fear—primarily because disease, I think, also eats up precious time which could be used productively to make money, destabilizing financial stability. In societies where finance and relationships are intimately tied, it also destabilizes relationships in workplace, marriage and with peers. Disease takes us away from life moments which we engage together with peers. Because of the linear nature of modern life, a few months lost can have a major difference in school, leading to failure to pass that grade or class, or to get that job in time.

Those who faced disease as children, however, understand the nature of the body’s resilience, and are able to mitigate their psychological response when the next bout of illness hits. Whereas those who never faced a disease like measles or chickenpox often carry a larger amount of subconscious fear of what may befall them, in case they get ill. And this psychological fear, I would argue, is more toxic than any virus that can infect your body with a mild illness that can hit a child for a month or so.

I’m not advocating that the MMR shot should stop. There is absolutely no reason for people to get sick if there’s already a vaccine in the market that can stop them from getting a common, preventable childhood illness that spreads infectiously. What I am observing, rather, is that there may have been a reason for the body, biologically, to get these illnesses in childhood. While not life-threatening (at least in the present day, when people have access to lots of antibiotics and other medications to handle the side effects of measles and chicken pox), these diseases give the body a chance to fight off a minor disease—and in that process, the body may “learn” about the body’s own defense mechanism as well as the process of healing. Healing is long, slow and requires patience. The body also learns, in the process of these childhood diseases, that healing is a natural process and that the body has enormous capacity to correct imbalances.

Parents should give children the MMR shot, since it is available. If a common childhood illness can be prevented with this shot, which parent wouldn’t give it? But in case the shot doesn’t work as it is intended to, there may be a biological reason for it. In other words, these childhood diseases may be a rite of passage to understanding the body’s biological defense mechanisms, and for the young human to learn about how the body heals itself during and after illness.


People, in case your local media failed to inform you, here’s the news: the New World Order just ended today. The balance of power just shifted to Eurasia, and its going to be a new and hopefully more peaceful century.

Italy joined the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank yesterday (March 17th, 2015), followed by France and Germany. England has also decided to join, despite vociferous opposition from the USA.

The USA’s ostentatious reason is that China doesn’t have the capacity to run a bank of this stature, because its culture is too corrupt and it doesn’t have the capacity to monitor corruption. And, it says, China will use this opportunity to consolidate itself as a global power, since it would have inordinate say in the workings of the bank.

All of these are valid concerns. The only problem with these arguments, though, is that the Third World’s big powers, long cut out of the decision-making processes of the World Bank and the ADB, has now come into their own. They are raring to provide infrastructure to the 7 billion or more people (I am guessing the numbers here) who do not live in developed countries, and the World Bank and the ADB are simply not moving fast enough for them.

The Europeans joining the AIIB is a good thing, because despite its hype, China actually doesn’t have the democratic firepower to keep an institution of this nature on course without it running into giant problems that affect banking and investment in China today. In particular, I am thinking of those giant ghost cities that were built entirely without consultation with the people who were going to use them, and the way they now remain empty. China’s top-down decision making process is apparent here, and the Europeans will hopefully bring a dose of realism, and democratic governance, which will make infrastructure not just a heady Superman endeavor that rich people indulge in to show off their powerful connections and access to capital, but also an endeavor by, and for, the people.

I like the idea that Italy was the first European country to join the AIIB. I always think of Italy, despite its corruption, to be a country where quality is valued highly, and aesthetics too. By aesthetics, I mean not just how things look, but the total ambience of any built environment, with the Italians paying very close attention to the interaction between humans and man-made edifices. So I think it’s a good thing that they will be sprinkled throughout this Bank, like spice, and hopefully they will have enough decision-making power to create institutions and infrastructure which will be not just giant and impressive, but also human and user-friendly too. And hopefully these structures built will also look beautiful.

I also like the fact the French will bring their bureaucratic foot-dragging into the Bank. After being the “beneficiary” of a road-building program initiated by local Nepali Maoist head honcho Baburam Bhattarai, and seeing the way in which environmental guidelines, concerns for groundwater recharging, historical neighborhood preservation, century old trees, zoning, children’s schools concerns, and monsoon water drainage were all thrown out of the window to bulldoze a historic neighborhood for the sake of “development,” I realize a little bit of bureaucratic foot-dragging is a good thing. Hopefully the French, who love regulation, will be able to insert some of their concerns, and their long history of democratic governance, into this new institution.

The Germans will bring their efficiency, without doubt. And hopefully it won’t get into a China-Germany tussle for power, as in Europe. The English, of course, will be ever ready to make a profit—and lets hope they will do so without replicating their colonial history. I am hoping the English will also be able to educate the Chinese on the idea that economic development happens not just through concrete structures, but also through cultural institutions, and that books, films, music, cinema and other forms of cultural production are equally in need of “infrastructure development,” and that proper investment in these fields could hold up the economies of entire countries—as the British have proved with their own economy.

Japan has till March 31st to join this Bank. I think its time for Japan and China to make up and realize this is a new century. Japan is part of Asia. It cannot stay apart and isolated—its economy has to become integrated with the rest of the region’s. With its aging population, its more than even necessary that it seeks ways to find new forms of economic sustainability. With the Silk Road initiative that China has started, Japan can find many different ways to create meaningful employment for its people, old and young. So I hope that Japan will forget old grievances and join up. Why not make an apology if its going to end this bitter feuding of the ages? (Incidentally, an apology from Japan about war-related atrocities should then bring on a similar apology from China to Tibetans for their own human rights violations and atrocities.)

 Lets hope the start of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank is a true bridge between Europe and Asia, and that new forms of economic opportunities, as well as learning about governance, will arise through this exchange on both sides.

Here’s to peaceful co-existence!

(POP! Yes, that was champagne you just heard.)

PS: As to America… hmmm… I think America is busy fighting many wars in many continents…