Just when we thought we had reached the height of civilisation and modernity, about to conquer so many of the diseases that have beat us in the past, there is a new threat to the western world: multiresistant bacteria. The issue has been highlighted in Swedish media lately and scientists are becoming increasingly worried; resistancy is advancing at a quicker pace than research and pretty soon we might stand unprotected against illness.
The Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet revealed the other week that people in the more well-off areas of Stockholm are the most frequent users of antibiotics. Anna Barnéus, a physician in the affluent area of Lidingö, believes the reason to be that these people are unwilling to take days off work. They want to get well quickly so they ask for a dose of antibiotics in order to function as usual – thus driving up the prescription rate.
OK. So because a bunch of eager beaver careerists can't stand being anything less than healthy, the rest of us might have to deal with the consequenses of multiresistant bacteria. But can we blame them? In a society that bows at the altar of productivity, being unuseful is a big shame. We see the same patterns when it comes to mental illness or instability. The use of the antidepressant SSRI, also effective when it comes to obsessive compulsive syndrome and panic disorder, went up by 40 per cent between 2000 and 2006. This according to the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter.
Still an interviewed psychiatrist claimed that we should medicate more against mental illness, not less. He argued that many who suffer from mental instability but aren't treated suffer needlessly. If they were on medication, they would feel better. Again, there is a strong inclination towards the ideal of being healthy, no matter the cost. We don't need to have all these bad feelings, we can just erase them with a neat little pill.
This train of thought is reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel Brave New World from 1932, where citizens are bred in bottles and made to take a happy drug called soma. The drug is mandatory because it will ensure stability in society, while emotions are feared because they can make people unproductive. The same fear seems to be very much alive today. The Swedish prime minister likes to talk about the working people and how valuable they are to society. Sick-listing practices are highlighted as a major economic liability that should be downsized to a minimum. The ideal citizen is healthy, happy and hard-working. Sounds familiar?
The problem with all of this is of course that sometimes we need to be unproductive. If we get physically ill, it might be our bodies telling us we should cool it for a while. And when life throws us curve balls that make us feel under the weather, then maybe we're meant to work through those rough patches instead of just skitting over them with pills and remedies. We are humans after all, not machines crafted to run the wheels of production. Perhaps it is time to start valuing other areas of life than zeal and frantic happiness. Multiresistant bacteria is bad enough, but a society that cannot tolerate weakness would indeed be a brave new dystopian world.