April 26, 2013
April 25 was World Malaria Day 2013. It is marked in my calendar as a black day to commemorate the thousands who die every day from malaria. As these are mostly infants and mostly in Africa, they have no voices in Brussels or Washington, where erroneous decisions were made decades ago to ban the pesticide DDT without considering the consequences of such a precautionary fail. The science on the risks was wrong, the decision on banning DDT was politically motivated and the tens of millions who have since died needlessly (increasing impoverishment at the same time) was catastrophic. Knowing these facts with hindsight, no leader has ever had the courage to stand up and reverse the ban on DDT or admit that the decision was wrong. For the last four decades, we kept being told that the precautionary banning of DDT would lead to other alternatives that would finish the global malarial eradication process that had almost succeeded in the 1970s, but the best we could come up with is (I wish I were joking) mosquito nets.
So we have this day to mark the failure of global policy-making and the danger of letting passionate activists lead precaution-based policies without proper science, debate or alternatives. Except this year I noticed something sad: nobody seemed to care about World Malaria Day. No significant media coverage. No public recognition of the serious loss of life. Why is this? The WHO is now reporting ranges of infections in a different, and questionable manner that suggest a slight drop in the African death-rate (due perhaps to poverty reduction levels), programmes are coupling malaria with TB and AIDS to hide the tragedy of the preventable malaria deaths and, well, the world is pretending to move on because we have catastrophic climate change and its more serious threat to penguins. Still malaria is killing thousands every day and parasites are becoming resistant to certain treatments. Children fortunate enough to survive malaria, face a lifetime of serious disability. We should still care.
So I went to some of the NGO websites to see how they had accepted responsibility for this dark moment in the history of environmental activism. The European Environment Agency, chief architect of the principle of precautionary infallibility, was silent. So was WWF. Now the Risk-Monger did not expect Greenpeace to apologise for the millions of victims of their myopic anti-pesticide policies, but he was thoroughly disgusted to see what they had put on their website. They chose to celebrate World Penguin Day, with fun factoids about penguin poo and cute pictures. They could have been a little sensitive to the catastrophic losses the world has endured from their eco-activism fail.
The European Commission used the opportunity to blow their horn on how they are helping in the fight against malaria. For example, in the last 11 years, the EU has funded “€209 million in 87 research projects into the disease and how to control it” plus an extra €50 million for research into malaria drug clinical trials. To put this into perspective, Bill and Melinda Gates have donated over two billion USD for fighting malaria and 1.5 billion USD to the global fund to fight AIDS, TB and malaria. Only the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation seems to realise that so much more needs to be done (and they donate nothing to penguins!).
The Risk-Monger recently got into a disagreement with some former risk academic colleagues who still seem to be arguing the same things we had been advocating since the late 90’s (eg, more credible science in the decision-making processes). With the world no longer bothering to listen to the research community on how to effectively eradicate malaria once and for all, and EU policymakers stuck in a participatory engagement quagmire with non-scientific activists who demand to be listened to, perhaps it is time to develop a “post-evidence-based policy strategy”. We will have to learn how to manage in a world where policy is made according to a consensus of activist stakeholders and where science and cold, hard reality does not matter for much. Our ability to ignore thousands of deaths from malaria every day is a clear indication of this sorry situation.
Happy World Malaria Day … for anyone who remembered.