Public Health at Burning Man

Photo by Julia Wolf, Burning Man 2013.

Photo by Julia Wolf, Burning Man 2013.

Coming from a mass gatherings public health background, I find Burning Man fascinating. Full disclosure: I’ve never been, and I want to go (of course not only for the mass gatherings public health intrigue) – hopefully it will happen this year.

Many of the mass gatherings I have examined have had a large government organization component – the Olympics, the World Cup, Hajj, etc. Burning Man is not organized by the government, however. This is not that unusual, given that festivals, protests, and other types of mass gatherings are frequently organized by NGOs, private organizations, or other groups. Burning Man is also in a low-resource setting, raising the challenges of protecting public health. There are so many public health planning considerations for such an event, from medical care to emergency response to health promotion (sunscreen 🙂 ) to food and water safety to communicable diseases to injuries to everything else.

What I do find unusual about Burning Man is the following question: how does one reconcile needing to provide public health and healthcare to over 50,000 people with one of the ten principles of Burning Man: radical self-reliance? Clearly, health services are provided at the event, with the volunteer Black Rock City Emergency Services Department (ESD) providing emergency medical services and mental health services. If people need help, they get it. Still, I wonder about the impacts of people adhering to “radical self reliance”  on public health demands. The organizers do kindly provide a survival guide online (yay risk communication to participants), but scanning it I see that they don’t provide water at this desert event. By standard mass gatherings planning, this is blasphemy. With radical self-reliance taken into consideration, it makes more sense. I see the appeal of practicing self reliance, as it is among the reasons I want to go to Burning Man. I also see how radical self reliance can be balanced by a strong community atmosphere.

Still, my question is: how do an environment of exploration and physical challenges, people relying on their own resources, and protection of public health interact? People who have been to Burning Man, I would love to hear your insights on this.

I read a paper recently in Prehospital Emergency Care (2012): “Burning Man 2011: Mass Gathering Medical Care in an Austere Environment” by Bledsoe et al. Here is a link to the abstract. It details how medical care was provided at the event in 2011, but it does not consider the psychosocial variable of radical self reliance. I would love to see (or write, I suppose) an ethnography-type article examining these interactions. Maybe someday, but I’m sure it would be difficult to get the necessary permissions.

First, I need to experience Burning Man as a participant – as an awesome artistic community event to attend. I’ll consider coming back to it academically later.

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