October 09, 2009

Fast, Effective Relief from Pain?

by Chris Zacharia

One day I happened to be studying for a particular essay for my course here at Warwick when the familiar dull pangs of a headache began thumping at my temples. Trying to think when you have a headache is painful and self-defeating, like digging a hole with your bare hands. So, I did what everyone does, will do and will tell others to do – I reached up to my shelf and plucked out a packet of aspirin. In a few moments the pills had popped out of their foil, like apples falling from a tree, and I had quickly prepared the obligatory glass of water beside them. I swallowed both tablets at once and, just to be consistent, gulped down the glass of water whole. Since science has not yet developed pills that work instantly, I took a break from my assignment until the paracetamol kicked in, and during this barren spell I sat contemplating my actions. Why did I reach so mechanically for the pharmaceuticals when I first felt the headache?

Scientific developments usually mean big business, and medicine is no exception. The cost of developing a new drug and launching it to the market costs an average of $1.7bn (£1.04bn); private firms would never risk such large sums unless they knew that there was some serious money to be made. And, as the case of U.S. pharmaceuticals giant Monsanto shows, there’s no limit to potential profit if you’re willing to be unscrupulous about your methods. In the U.S., drug companies spend $19bn a year on promotions. Advertisements for drugs such as Ibuprofen litter our television screens, bathroom shelves brim with a veritable rainbow of medicines, and corporations such as Pfizer, Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline have revenues stretching into the tens of billions. Most importantly, the citizens of most developed nations are impeccably trained when it comes to taking their medicines – they know their Nurofen from their Nytol, their Benylin from their Beechams.

There’s no doubt that modern medicine offers huge benefits to societies worldwide, and that the rise in average life expectancy is in no small part due to these developments. What I want to attack here specifically is the mindset behind the taking of the aspirin. Take the situation I described earlier – my contracting of a headache, which was most probably down to too many hours spent staring at the laptop screen. My headache was my brain telling me that it couldn’t handle the strain of concentrating on the screen, and that it was doing me harm. But instead of actually taking this into account, I fulfilled instead the well-drilled action of mindlessly taking some aspirin. Rather than cease an activity that was doing me harm, I quashed my body’s ineffective complaints so that I could continue the harmful action. After all, when we are ill, we are told – often by concerned members of our families and friendship circles – to ‘take some medicine’. The implicit message here is that the origin of discomfort lies with the human, not with the lifestyle. What is implicitly admitted is that the lifestyle is too powerful to change, and in its place the body must yield instead. In fact, the truth is that the lifestyle is the cause of the headache, and yet we are discouraged from protecting ourselves from such harmful ways and instead given a quick, easy and convenient solution in the form of the tablet. Why are our lifestyles being put behind, instead of before, productivity & convenience?

As people base their lives around wealth accumulation for faceless profiteers, their complex emotional needs are rarely satisfied and are more often than not entirely ignored. These needs are left out of important agendas entirely and those who do attempt to delve into their subconscious are depicted as New Age spiritual types or religious fools. The system of wealth accumulation, by squeezing every ounce of productivity from every worker, like battery-farm hens, essentially leaves the individual no choice but to resort to quick-fix convenience solutions that often harm the protagonist in the long-term and benefit the deceivers who propagate such problems. Few of those who work 40 hours or more a week for minimum wage or thereabouts will have the energy or time to cook a nutritious and fulfilling meal; often, profitable ready-meals and frozen foods are necessary to free up precious leisure time, at the expense of personal wellbeing. It is the same with the aspirin example I gave earlier. It is just one of many that shows just how far convenience is embedded within our thoughts and everyday actions. The capitalist world sells us, through the national con-game of advertising, a hollow lifestyle of shortcuts and vice, which we are loath to reject since we need all the free time we can get. Convenience, I believe, is the trusty sword by the side of capitalism, invaluable whenever the system faces challenges. Changing the system must involve forcing production to fall in line with the needs of human beings, rather than the other way around – and only then can the insipid culture of convenience, and the resulting mega-profits, be put to rest.

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