Economics, not climate, the key

Richard Tren | 17 May 2005
Business Day (South Africa)

The essayist and publisher Ernest Benn once wrote: "Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it wrongly and applying unsuitable remedies." This came to mind when Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk recently claimed that malaria rates would quadruple in coming years and that nonmalarial areas such as Gauteng would become malarial because of global warming.

Van Schalkwyk has not only wrongly diagnosed the trouble, but his solutions are potentially damaging. The notion that global warming, or climate change, will lead to an increased spread of insect-borne diseases is not a new one. For years environmental groups have been claiming what Van Schalkwyk has just stumbled across, and they, too, are wrong.

Malaria is a colossal public-health problem, killing more than a million children and making more than half a billion people ill every year. It is a drain on productivity and costs poor nations billions of dollars. Although climatic factors play an important role in the spread and intensity of malaria, history shows that climate plays a minor role in controlling it. We associate malaria with tropical countries that are poor, but until the 1950s malaria was widespread throughout Europe and the US. There were severe malaria epidemics in Archangel in the Arctic circle during the 1930s. Public health expert Prof Paul Reiter notes that while malaria was slowly declining in western Europe towards the end of the 19th century, eastern Europe was suffering from terrible epidemics of the disease.

In the west, increased wealth, better protection from mosquitoes, access to medicines, and agricultural development that dried up mosquito breeding pools meant that the disease declined. The grinding poverty in countries such as Poland and Russia means that malaria maintains its ruthless grip. In southern Africa, a similar situation is unfolding. Thanks to the correct mix of mosquito controls and better medicines, malaria in SA, Swaziland and southern Mozambique is almost at a record low. Zambia has adopted similar antimalaria strategies and been rewarded with sharply declining cases and deaths. Yet malaria cases in Zimbabwe are soaring. Southern African countries enjoy broadly the same climate, in the context of any global warming. Yet malaria rates are going in opposite directions in neighbouring countries.

The only explanation is the difference in public health strategies together with the economic and political situations. Malaria control has deteriorated, with almost all medical services, in Zimbabwe so that people are dying of preventable and curable diseases. If Van Schalkwyk was interested in the truth, he could have pointed out that politics and economic chaos in Zimbabwe have facilitated the spread of malaria and driven life expectancy to just 33 years. But perhaps, in the climate of southern African politics, it is far easier just to discuss global warming.

Van Schalkwyk went on to call for reductions in the production of greenhouse gases as though this would come at no cost. The absurdity is that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would cost billions, if not trillions, of dollars and would delay projected global warming by only six years. Add to this the uncertainties surrounding climate change and this makes for a very bad investment. If African governments care about reducing malaria, they have to get their economies to grow. The only way we will be able to cope with health-care problems in the future is, like Europe in the 19th century, to become wealthier. A growing economy with greater wealth for all can come only with greater economic freedom and market-based reforms.

Yet listening to Van Schalkwyk would add enormous costs to the economy, reduce growth and leave us in a worse position to tackle public health problems. Discussing global warming may earn Van Schalkwyk brownie — or should that be greenie — points among environmentalists. But he should leave malaria to the health department, which has done a great job controlling it. His scaremongering about the spread of the disease is not based on science or fact and ignores the long and well-documented history of man and malaria.

We owe it to the millions who die from this devastating disease not to allow politicians to misdiagnose the problem and mischievously use their deaths to advance their political agendas.

Tren is a director of health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria.