Saving Africa

Joe Nocera asks if a vision can save

They wrap them in white linen and lower them into the ground. The small white clumps look like loaves of bread, innocent, clean and lifeless. I’ve stood by and watched as the dead children of Africa are covered with earth. Mothers weep. Fathers hang their heads. Surviving children cling to the legs of adults, their eyes quizzical, sad and filled with fear. I’ve seen it more times than I can count. More hurt than I want to remember. Malaria alone takes a life every 30 seconds. The conditions bred by extreme poverty–malnutrition, water-borne diseases, infections–kill even faster. And it’s the kids who go first. Promise stolen, laid in the ground wrapped in white cloth.

These images filled my mind as I read Joe Nocera’s column today in the New York Times. Nocera discusses the pros and cons of the attempt to end malaria and the vision of Dr. Jeffrey Sachs to end extreme poverty. Nocera asks, “Can A Vision Save All of Africa?” He concludes, probably not. Or, more accurately, he closes his column by asking when the current interest in malaria has run its course and malaria is no longer the “pet cause” in American corporate boardrooms–Nocera is a business columnist–what then?

I’ve heard all the reasons why the vision to end malaria is not possible. In a recent meeting I heard one individual say about ending extreme poverty, “That’s just stupid.” I think for every vision that’s put forth there are ten reasons why it won’t work and twenty people lined up to present them. And then there are those who say we should take care of our own first, and others who say this is not our problem we should be concentrating on something else, and the something else is their pet agenda.

So maybe Dr. Sachs is tilting at windmills. Maybe the world can’t partner with Africa to save the lives of the next generation of children. Maybe mosquitos will adapt to the insecticide and another will need to be created. Maybe the bednet will rip. And maybe it’s impossible to cover the whole continent of Africa. And maybe…well, you fill in your reason this visionary idea of saving lives is doomed from the start, I’ve run out.

I’d rather tilt at Dr. Sachs’ windmills than stand in the back of the room and point out why these things can’t be done. At least the worst that can happen is public embarrassment for being hopeful and optimistic.

Oh yes, and one more thing. I wish those who think we can’t end malaria and reduce extreme poverty would get their reasons together, stand at the edge of a hole in the ground where a mother has just laid a white-shrouded body, look her in the eye and tell her why.

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