A Poisonous Cocktail in a Perfect Storm

If the worst predictions of our scientific community come to pass, Africa may be facing a poisonous cocktail of natural and man made events that will have a calamitous impact. And while the Africans themselves will bear some of the blame for their predicament, the developed world will have to take most of the credit. Certainly, Africa was the victim of Western colonialism and imperialism that set up artificial borders, broke down indigenous leadership and loyalties, plundered the continents resources and enslaved its people. While the west has sought to compensate through bilateral and multilateral AID projects, the effects have been mixed and at times have hurt as much as helped. And in no case has the assistance been overly generous.

On this background, the record of African leadership, with some exceptions has been too often marked by corruption and exploitation of the people for personal gain and status. And traditional enmities and prejudices have been played out with extraordinary violence as outbreaks of genocide. The international community has been either absent, as in the case of Rwanda, or ineffective, as in Somalia and Darfur. The UN has been frozen out or AWOL and the African Union too fragmented, unprepared and under funded to pick up the slack.

It is not only human depredations that have inflicted the continent. Since the 1980’s Africa has been developing a cancer in the form of HIV/AIDS. Immediate attention could have prevented thousands of deaths, but for many in the West it was a disease of druggies and homosexuals, and among some there was a belief in God’s wrath being visited. Part of the fuel that keeps the pandemic burning is prostitution and dirty needles, but the largest donor to AIDS programs, the United States refuses, by law to support clean needle programs or programs to provide health care specifically targeted at prostitutes. Politics at home, which have nothing to do with Africa’s problems are defining America’s approach. As a result of HIV/AIDS Africa’s ranks of security and health care workers are being thinned while the security and health problems mount.

If Africa was now hit with an influenza pandemic like Avian Flu, and if the predictions are even close to correct, the health care facilities would be overwhelmed in a matter of days. Doctors and nurses have been educated and trained in Africa and they have emigrated to the West for better salaries. With a pandemic the needs of the West backed by the dollars of the West would act as a magnet for remaining trained personnel, at least the ones that do not succumb to the influenza themselves. There would be little help from vaccines that have yet to be developed and antivirals that could save lives are in short supply, manufactured and stockpiled in the West and destined by politics to save lives in the West.  And because the virus would be carried by people, transportation systems would be shut down as countries and cities sought to protect themselves. The Bubonic plague wiped out a third of Europe. The Avian flue could wipe out a third of Africa.

Africa is a continent that is highly sensitive to the weather. Much of the farming in large parts of Africa is subsistence and highly vulnerable to drought. Global warming has captured the headlines, but the effects and timing are still dimly understood by the average American. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal,…” With that warming will come significant changes in water supplies and growing seasons. Africa is specified as a continent that will be particularly hard hit. Localized starvation is already a problem in parts of Africa so any increase in temperatures and reduction in water resources could have disastrous results. Up to now, the international community has been able to respond to starvation when access is assured, but if the world is faced with an influenza pandemic, access will not be assured and widespread starvation is likely. At the same time, warming has been shown to spread and intensify many diseases that currently plague Africa. As water supplies dwindled clean water would be harder to find and diarrhoeal diseases would run rampant among children and infants causing countless deaths.  Cardio-respiratory and infectious diseases would intensify their grip while respirators and drug supplies proved inadequate to the enlarged task. With medical facilities and resources already stretched by HIV/AIDs, malaria, diarrhoeal diseases, and other tropical diseases like West Nile virus, Africa would face a complete breakdown in public health with massive death rates and severe economic impact.

One thing is clear, the international community does not have the coordination, planning, funds, cooperation, organization and political will to deal with such a perfect storm of biblical plagues in Africa and other less developed regions in the world. And there seems to be little inclination by the leading Western countries to care. While the West would not be immune from such disasters, we have the resources in wealth, technology and trained people to adapt to climate change and deal with massive medical emergencies. And so it may come to pass, that Africa, suffers the consequences of the smokestack industries in China the gas guzzlers of the United States and the inheritance of European colonialism and imperialism.