Sunday, December 6, 2009

Public Health Trumps Economic Growth: Doctors Force Quebec Government to Back Off

Chalk one up for Quality of Life advocates. On Friday a group of 20 doctors working in the regional hospital in Sept Iles, Quebec, resigned on mass to protest the Quebec government’s complicity in going ahead to develop a uranium mine in close proximity to the town’s source of water. If the government doesn’t step down and the doctors go ahead with their plans, the region’s only hospital will be forced to close.

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This is a clear case where the quality of life of the town’s inhabitants must come before economic growth. This is not simply a question of jobs versus public health. It goes much further. This conflict underlies the tension between two different worldviews: one that asserts that the public good is advanced by continued economic growth and one that places the standard of material life along side many other health indicators and does not privilege material well-being over all other quality of life indicators.

Clearly, from the doctors’ perspective, the exploitation of a uranium mine is detrimental to the public health of the region. Moreover, they judged it to be against their professional code of ethics to remain silent and simply treat the inevitable increase in the number of sick and infirm as a result of mining uranium in the region.

For far too long the proponents of economic growth at any cost have had their way unchallenged. This gesture goes a long way to assert that the quality of life of the population comes before material well-being of an increasingly isolated elite.

In fact, the situation in Sept Iles demonstrates how useless the GDP metric is in determining a quality of life problem. Since the calculation of GDP doesn’t differentiate between what is good and bad for the public – it simply adds up the volume of all monetized transactions – the increase in health care expenditures expands the region’s GDP, which is to be interpreted as a good thing for the population at large. In other words, when wearing the GDP blinders, the question of whether or not to go ahead with the development of the uranium mine doesn’t even arise since the internal logic of the mindset has already determined what course of action should be undertaken.

If we consider that increased economic growth has led to ever increasing growth in the proportion that health care expenditures demand of provincial government budgets (soon to reach 50% in Quebec), the question should be raised, can we the public, in particular the middle-class, afford continued economic growth? Essentially, those who stand to gain the most financially from the development of the mine are the invesors who are more than willing to offload the externalities of its development to the public purse, and it’s the middle class who fills its coffers. Slowly but surely the members of the middle class are becoming wage slaves.

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