Friday, September 16, 2011

The Poverty behind the Plague

Priscilla Wald

People cough, then have seizures, froth at the mouth, and die on the spot. Garbage piles up on the streets. Busy airports become deserted. We see the worst of human nature: rioting, looting, hoarding. There’s nothing but the instinct to survive. So goes the film Contagion. It tells a bleak but familiar story, one that’s been repeated in countless disaster films and novels. The world is increasingly interconnected. Air travel makes it smaller. Undeveloped parts harbor dangerous new viruses. Overcrowded cities will send these viruses into the network of global cities. We’re all in much more intimate contact than we imagine. Bottom line: Pandemics are the price we pay for our global connections. We need to change this storyline. Pandemics are not entirely “natural” disasters. Rather, human beings, and their myriad social and economic problems, produce the conditions that precede and fuel pandemics.

The eradication of extreme hunger and poverty is the first of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Its report for 2010 maintains that the goal of cutting in half the number of people living on less than $1 a day by 2015 is reachable. That’s where the story needs to begin. Global poverty is the biggest humanitarian and economic disaster. Nothing will more effectively fuel “the coming plague.” But global poverty is not inevitable. Maybe the best way to prepare for the disaster described in Contagion is to stop asking how we’ll survive the next pandemic and ask, instead, how we want to address the problems that fuel it.

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