Lifeblood and Money

Selling blood in an Atlanta laboratory in 1974.
Selling blood in an Atlanta laboratory in 1974.

In Yan Lianke’s Ding village, blood represents the possibility of prosperity and creates a chance to increase one’s economic standing. The commodification of blood indirectly leads to a lot of the deaths we see in the story through the reuse of infected needles. The irony is that the blood, intended to give life, instead takes it away in the context of Ding Village. It got me wondering more broadly about the state of the plasma economy today – and it turns out demand is still pulsing.

Plasma — the golden liquid that transports red and white blood cells and proteins through our bodies — is something of an elixir. It’s used to create lifesaving medicines for people with hemophilia, immune disorders, burns and other painful conditions, and it cannot be replicated in a lab.

Although illegal in many developed countries, business is booming in several economies, such as the US, China, Germany and Hungary, where people can make $30 donating plasma in the US, up to 104 times a year. It’s now a $20 billion industry, with global exports worth more, in 2016, than global exports of aeroplanes. 

But there is an underside to all that growth, one which mirrors the reality we see in Ding Village: The industry depends on the blood of the very poor. Plasma companies strategically locate their collection centers disproportionately in destitute neighbourhoods, according to Heather Olsen, who, as a graduate student researcher at Case Western Reserve University, examined 40 years of data on collection centers across the country.

A number of people at the CSL collection center in North Philadelphia confirmed that the money they received there was their only income; they were putting it toward food, rent and bus fare. Some, like Kevin Hayway, were veteran plasma sellers; he estimated that he had sold his plasma more than 100 times a year for the past three years.

However, the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, a trade group, naturally disputes the idea that the industry depends on desperate people.

“When I go to centers, what I see in those centers is people of all walks of life. You see mothers, you see students, you see employed people, you see unemployed people,” said Jan Bult, the group’s president and chief executive.

Although I initially found the concept of blood selling potentially exploitative and unsettling, especially as it is not presented in the most favourable light in the novel, I found some articles that argue it should be legalised in more countries. Their argument rests on that it is a safe practice today, and that the limited medical and social risks are dwarfed by the benefits. They say that bans on paying for human blood distort a vital global market, as global demand for plasma is growing, and cannot be met through altruistic donations alone.

Is the business exploitative, taking advantage of desperate people? Or is it beneficial, offering much-needed income to those who have few avenues to make money? Should we encourage people to sell their lifeblood so frequently, or make it harder to do so?

Bottles with blood plasma derivatives stand on a packing plant at the Octapharma company in Dessau, eastern Germany.
Bottles with blood plasma derivatives stand on a packing plant at the Octapharma company in Dessau, eastern Germany. (Eckehard Schulz / AP)

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