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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Has a Work-Based Epidemic Swept the World?

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When an epidemic roars through a major city and wreaks havoc, people usually band together to fight back. Well, a new infection, to be specific.

Though it has ebbed and flowed for centuries, the bacterial epidemic that threatens to wipe out all but a fraction of humanity continues to strike work-based economies worldwide and will continue to do so until we find a way to put an end to it, according to a new analysis released Wednesday by a group of leading economists.

Working hours, while variable, continue to shift with the economic climate. The more developed a country, the more certain it is that fewer people will have jobs. In regions like Latin America and Africa, where most working hours are currently concentrated, the exodus from work is likely to increase even further as countries struggle to deal with the impact of a runaway epidemic.

“This study shows us that no one at any level of society in our world can guarantee job protection against this very serious threat,” said Robert Kahn, a professor of political economy at Rutgers University.

To assess the spread of work-based pathogens, economists used the World Health Organization’s annual “viral” data covering the entire world since the turn of the century. For a specific country, they looked at changes in labor consumption, including hours worked and hours worked per worker, that peaked in the following year.

Generally, the researchers found that new work-based infections were associated with higher labor consumption. This suggests that work-based risks are a global and structural problem. They might spread where there is excess production capacity or a large number of unemployed people in areas with high manufacturing output. “A lot of the problems we’re currently dealing with around the world might have been caused by virus instead of just some natural phenomena,” said Richard Lewontin, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan.

To understand why the world has not yet mobilized to contain the work-based threat, it’s important to note that the list of the top ten infections includes mosquitoes, social media, toxic sewage, social breakdown and the water pollution produced by hydraulic fracturing.

“We had made some prior studies about how the spread of infection was related to inequality,” said Francoise Lauret, a health economist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Our findings basically confirm that they are a threat to our highest living standards.”

To be sure, we shouldn’t even try to place any blame on animals for the work-based infections. “People are really free to get jobs where they’re available,” said Kahn. “The virus spreads from person to person.”

Still, the political impact of these epidemics could be profound, according to two studies published in Science Translational Medicine. Compared to countries where people largely have the option to work, those hit hard by work-based viruses see higher income inequality, more public health expenditures and a decline in labor market dynamism. For instance, work-based infections are more closely associated with low labor force participation than employment for unrelated persons, according to the Science Translational Medicine study. This is because the livelihoods of unemployed workers tend to have an outsized impact on the economy, Kahn said.

Workers often see the diseases as a way of signaling someone to “go away.” In other words, work-based infections go hand in hand with class warfare.

“Work-based viruses could be a serious political problem because it tends to be the working class who are susceptible,” said Kahn. “It can be very scary.”

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