knowledge/power: conspiracies & coverups in the time of cholera (& famine)

{Part Two}

So yesterday I asked whether it is better not to know about the suffering that is in this world that we might not know about or encounter in our day-to-day lives. After all, most of us have obligations and cares that rightfully consume most of our time and energy. Why read news stories, blogs, or books that tell us about terrible suffering?

For me, history is often instructive and comforting. And I think that history proves the proverb I shared yesterday–

“The righteous know the rights of the poor;
   the wicked have no such understanding.”
 (Proverbs 29:7, NRSV)

–or, at the very least, shows that knowing is often an important first step–that knowing the needs of the poor is good.

Not so long ago, I watched this documentary about the Russian famine of 1921. When crops failed, and millions were facing death by starvation, Lenin (for various political reasons) refused to request/accept aid from other nations, the writer Maxim Gorky issued an appeal to the outside world in the form of newspaper advertisements, some of which caught the notice of world leaders–including one Herbert Hoover–who organized a massive relief effort that saved many, many lives.

Someone read that newspaper ad and did something about it.


And in this series of lectures I’ve been listening to, the delightful professor tells a story of conspiracy and coverup–that was perfectly true: that Naples, Italy, had an outbreak of cholera that they did not want to openly acknowledge because of the colonial and economic associations of the disease: it is a disease from the global South, and it is a disease that disproportionately affects poor people. As a result of the coverup, more people died than would have had the authorities addressed the epidemic and handled it with the knowledge and resources that were available at that time.

Had people been equipped with knowledge, lives would have been saved.

The famine I referred to yesterday–the one that took place in Malawi, the one that William Kamkwambe lived through–was yet another event in which government officials either didn’t know about or refused to acknowledge the reality of the famine until most Malawians were already on the brink of starvation. (Source here.)

Again: knowledge + timely action could have saved lives.

And so it is with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Myths and misinformation proliferates, and with it the virus that has created more than 10 million African orphans.

So knowledge is power, and power is knowledge–thus, knowing the troubles of “the least of these” has inherent value.

But of course, we are not talking merely about knowing. We’re talking about knowing that involves some kind of doing.

If we know that it would cost no more than $30 billion to give everyone in the world access to clean water, but half the people in the developing world still don’t have it, that knowing doesn’t help much.

If we know that most of us throw away more food per year than some people eat in that same year, but don’t do anything, those people still go hungry.

But if we don’t know, how can we even hope to do?

We need to know.

{Tomorrow we’ll talk about some things we can do: how we can ‘eat with joy’ in light of our global neighbors.}

World AIDS Day

I’m delighted to be attending a World Vision AIDS breakfast this morning, where I’m also meeting one of my fellow her.meneutics writers, Jennifer Grant (who is the author of this lovely adoption memoir) in person for the first time!Coincidentally, I happened to be reading Margaret Kim Peterson’s Sing Me to Heaven this week, which is a memoir of her marriage to Hyung Goo Kim, who died from AIDS just four years after they married. It is an unusual, beautifully told, and deeply redemptive story, and (occurring, as it did, in the mid-90s) it reminded me how different the face of HIV/AIDS is today. Antiretroviral drugs have changed the disease from a sentence of death to a manageable illness, for those who are able to access them.Unfortunately, for many in the developing world–especially on the continent of Africa–the ARV drugs are completely unaffordable, which is tragic in many ways, not least because ARV drugs significantly reduce the spread of the virus, especially the mother-to-child transmission. And, as Melissa Fay Greene tells so well in There is No Me Without You, HIV/AIDS in Africa has resulted–and still results–in many, many orphans.I was very young when a family friend lost his fight against AIDS in the 1980s.  I remember seeing him in the hospital lobby, clutching his IV pole and looking so tired, and then being told a short time later that he’d died.

Probably you have your own memories from those (relatively) early days of the virus. ARVs have made it easy to forget what AIDS once meant.

But let’s not forget what it still means for millions.

Visit World Vision’s HIV/AIDS resources here. There’s lots of information to explore, free downloadable resources, and opportunities to give toward their HIV/AIDS efforts.