Insight News

Feb 11th

Southern Africa’s famine, 14 million deaths—take back seat to war talk

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Forgive my naiveté but I can never quite get over the way that Black life is so undervalued in this society. Forgive my naiveté but I can never quite get over the way that Black life is so undervalued in this society. I should be old enough to be sufficiently hardened to this reality, but every so often something transpires that pricks my nerves and leaves me completely unsettled. The recent announcement that 14 million people are dying in Southern Africa as a result of a disastrous drought and famine fits into just that category.

I have not known 14 million of anything. It is difficult to even consider counting that high. So I found myself putting it into relationship to something else, in particular to another disaster: September 11, 2001. All told, somewhere around 3,000 people were murdered that day in a horrific, criminal act of terror. This year, as we all know, we were reminded of that tragedy through various events and television shows, some of which were politically motivated. When you think about the 3,000 who perished, however, multiply by 4,700. In other words, for each person killed on September 11, approximately 4,700 people will die in Southern Africa because of starvation and disease.

Fourteen million people expected to die soon and yet so little attention to this catastrophe. Indeed, the day after I heard the projection of these deaths, I looked for more detailed information in the Washington Post. I had to turn to PAGE 22 to find a story. Fourteen million people expected to die and we get a short story on page 22.

At a time when we are on the verge of such a cataclysm, neither the United States nor the European Union is focusing on the need for massive humanitarian assistance. One can easily contrast this with the extraordinary preparations underway in both the United States and Britain for an illegal and allegedly preemptive assault on Iraq. It is not only about the minimal amount of money that is being put into Southern Africa. It is also about the provision of logistical assistance. The ability to get food, water and medical assistance into the more desperately needed areas is analogous to a military operation. This is not happening.

The problem is that none of this will happen until and unless the Southern African catastrophe is acknowledged by the U.S. government and the media as a major site for a policy initiative. To put it less academically, the loss of African lives must come to be understood as constituting an emergency. Yet this pending disaster is completely overshadowed by U.S. preparations for war with Iraq. I have turned from one TV channel to another, and little if anything can be found about the Southern African situation. Yet, commentator after commentator revs up his/her engines and the jingoism of many in the audience to prepare us for another war in the Middle East. Something is seriously wrong with this picture.

To make matters worse, the situation in Southern Africa actually is not disconnected from policy decisions being made in Washington. Several weeks ago National Public Radio broadcast a story about the Southern African situation; the drought in particular. They noted that scientists are concluding that this drought, and perhaps the last major African drought, are directly connected to industrial air pollution originating in the northern hemisphere of this planet, i.e., particularly from the United States, Canada, Western Europe and Japan. The drought, in other words, is not a regular, natural disaster to which humans must accommodate ourselves. It is, at least in part, the result of human activity, and specifically, the activity of the advanced, industrial capitalist nations.

The revelation of this apparent connection sheds an interesting light on the decision of the Bush administration to withdraw from the Kyoto environmental accords several months back. The reason for withdrawing concerned the alleged impact that the Kyoto accords would have on the U.S. economy. No one in

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