The Price of Invisibility—Poverty, Malnutrition, and Disease
31 He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
This is an extremely difficult subject, provoked by a local sermon and concerns alluded to in earlier installments. It is particularly important that this topic be approached prayerfully, while avoiding the obscuring influences of political views, and I’m not very good at that. Everyone sees this subject-matter all the time, to the point that (much as Stalin supposedly said) it often fades from tragedy to statistic. It isn’t clear, yet, what it will take to make us aware of the horrific magnitude of this worldwide crisis, but we have to start somewhere.
Here’s what the World Health Organization’s report on malnutrition has to say:
“Chronic food deficits affect about 792 million people in the world (FAO 2000), including 20% of the population in developing countries. Worldwide, malnutrition affects one in three people and each of its major forms dwarfs most other diseases globally (WHO, 2000). Malnutrition affects all age groups, but it is especially common among the poor and those with inadequate access to health education and to clean water and good sanitation. More than 70% of children with protein-energy malnutrition live in Asia, 26% live in Africa, and 4% in Latin America and the Caribbean (WHO 2000). ” [ Wikipedia definition and description of PEM ]
I recognize that WHO’s information and statistics might be found less than respectable by many, due to various economic and political agendas, but they are readily accessible and mostly in one place. The above looks like a reasonable summary of the nature and factors of world malnutrition—with its most devastating effects in underdeveloped countries, where it is exacerbated by poverty, poor access to health care and information, and bad living conditions.
WHO’s document Nutrition for health and development: A global agenda for combating malnutrition contains more detail on this subject. Almost half of the deaths of children each year are due to malnutrition. Nutritional deficiencies are among the most common preventable causes of brain damage and blindness in children. Section 2.1, “The spectrum of malnutrition”, contains a summary of the situation (although they seem determined to throw in overnutrition (obesity) and misnutrution? (as a cause of cancer) to complicate the issue).
Meanwhile, disease also ravages the developing world. An admittedly cursory scan of the CIA World Factbook shows high risks of the same “laundry list” of diseases among most of these countries, especially in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa: bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis, typhoid fever, malaria, meningitis, as well as deficiency-related diseases including mental retardation, blindness, and developmental deformities which can be readily treated or prevented with a ridiculously small investment in supplemental iodine, vitamins, iron, and other micronutrients. Poor sanitation, filthy drinking water, and living conditions which in America would result in serious jail time if inflicted upon dogs or cattle, are the facts of life of millions in the 21st Century.
Then there’s HIV/AIDS. [ WHO is in significant denial here; when homosexuality—which WHO always refers to as “men having sex with men”—is addressed, it is usually about the role of stigmatization and anti-sodomy laws as barriers to victims seeking treatment, not the role of this elective behavior as the original and still major vector of the disease. WHO apparently declines to admit that abstinence from homosexual behavior might have any benefits in preventing the spread of the disease, while the remarkable effect of abstinence from premarital heterosexual relations in Uganda on infection rates of HIV is mentioned. Obviously the beneficial role of Christian doctrine as a response to both the destructive behavior and the unforgiving repression of those suffering the consequences ( 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ) will not be found in UN literature. ] WHO’s “2004 Report on the global AIDS epidemic ” refers to HIV/AIDS as an “extraordinary kind of a crisis ”, “unique in human history in its rapid spread, its extent and the depth of its impact. ” 20 years after the disease was first recognized, the toll is 20 million people dead, with 37.8 million infected as of the time of the Report, and the goals of simply stopping the acceleration of rates of new infections are nowhere near to being realized. Sub-Saharan Africa, with about 10% of the world’s population, has about two-thirds of the people infected. 57% of the infected in these countries are women, who often suffer repression and mistreatment due to prevailing customs and traditions, who are usually required to care for the ill, and who are biologically more susceptible to the infection.
There has been remarkable success in the development of anti-retroviral drugs to prolong life and restore a measure of health to the HIV-infected, and significant reductions in the cost of the drugs, but in the poorer countries only about 7% of the infected have access to these life-sustaining medications. Meanwhile, about 12 million children in sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS, and many of these ever-growing numbers of “AIDS orphans” are neglected
All of these conditions contribute to a hellish cycle of deprivation and death. Poverty leads to chronic malnutrition, which makes the victims more susceptible to disease. AIDS and other diseases drastically diminish income potential and educational opportunity, destroy economies and individual resources, and kill in increasing numbers, leaving impoverished survivors, including unsupported children.
Nor are the degree and distribution of this suffering just an accident of geography. Political, economic, and social priorities in the powerful industrialized nations as well as in many of the poor, devastated countries themselves are primary ingredients in the world’s suffering. Few could argue that that the resources to end the misery of the world’s poor are not available to us, or that much of the death, disease, and loss which afflicts them is preventable. What is the problem then? As an example, UNAID’s executive summary to the Report calls for funding of a global AIDS response of $20 billion USD per year by 2007, to cover antiretroviral therapy for 6 million people, support for 22 million orphans, adult counseling and testing, and education programs in schools. Funding as of the Report was at about $5 billion USD. Even if the funding calls are inflated by bureaucracy and corruption in the decrepit UN organizations, this “burden” on industrialized nations needs to be put into perspective: that’s about 9 B-2 “Stealth” Bombers , about 15 Shuttle launches. or about one-fifth of an International Space Station (The remaining four-fifths of an ISS would probably go a long way to relieve other diseases, malnutrition, and poverty).
No nation can “wall off” the horrors of the rest of the world and go on to develop its military power and national prestige in isolation. It is particularly apparent from recent outbreaks of virulent diseases, including hemorrhagic fevers such as Marburg and Ebola, and Avian Influenza, that there’s no such thing as “somebody else’s problem”. Death for millions in any country on the planet could be a mutation and an airplane flight away.
Political, social, and military conditions in many of the most affected countries themselves undoubtedly contribute heavily to the suffering. Another cursory scan of the CIA World Factbook, for example, shows that a disproportionate number of African nations are or have been at war with one or more neighbors recently. It seems that almost all of them are forced to support large refugee populations from one or more neighbors due to other nations’ wars.
Few outrages could be more sickening than the situation in Rwanda, site of one of the bloodiest genocides in modern history (which an American President was too busy to notice) in revenge for an overthrow and exile which was, in turn, a reprisal for years of repression of one African tribe by another. According to the CIA’s Factbook, Rwanda has a 60% poverty rate (mean per capita GDP $1300USD per year), a 5% adult AIDS prevalence (2003), and an economy decimated by the genocide, warfare, collapse of the world market for coffee, and lack of infrastructure. It still depends heavily on international aid. Nevertheless, it spends 3.2% of its GDP ( a percentage comparable to the military expenditures of the U.S.) to support its military so that it can continue its border disputes with its neighbors, maintain an insurgency in the Congo, and resist various internal insurgencies and rebel groups.
Then there’s Angola—devastated by a quarter-century of a civil war which was often exploited and encouraged by other nations, with a 70% poverty rate, inflation rates over 100%, and over 50% unemployment. Angola’s government nevertheless sees fit to spend an incomprehensible 10.6% of its GDP to support its military!
This is not an acceptable outcome—the world, particularly the people of God’s Kingdom dedicated in Christ to showing His Love to the world, cannot stand by and suffer the loss of entire continents of human beings. The condition of a third of the world’s population beggars all pretense of basic human decency. Even if the statistics were skewed or the descriptions exaggerated somehow, the fact of the abject failure of humanity to rectify this monstrous evil is an unanswerable indictment against us all. While people can die of invisibility, we are all guilty.
So what should be done? Imagine , as John Lennon was found of saying, that we could set aside the arrogant lust for power, our endless appetite for evil, and would no longer tolerate the indecency of allowing millions to suffer and die when the resources are clearly available to save them. We only need to convince world and local leaders to act fairly and honestly, and to reorganize their priorities to equitably insure the health and well-being of all humanity—our most precious and irreplaceable resource.
But everyone knows that none of this will ever work. The reason that none of this will ever happen is that we—WHO, the UN, presidents, kings, politicians, and everyone else on this planet, have been completely missing the point.
NEXT: A Practical Matter, Part II: What would Jesus do?