April 26, 2008

Five-Dollar Lives

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For all the so-called activism that occurs on this campus, how about doing something truly revolutionary? Now, before you read on, know that revolutionary does not necessarily mean headlines. What am I talking about? Well, for example, take Norman Borlaug.

It’s a safe bet to say that you’ve probably never heard of Mr. Borlaug. It took me a bit of time googling variations of “saved millions of lives” before I even found him- even though I knew he’d be the lead-in to this article. So, now that I’ve given away what he did (saved millions of lives), what does he have to do with you?

Not much actually. You and Norman are most probably quite different. After all, you’re a college student and he’s a 94-year-old agronomist. Granted, we do have an agriculture school somewhere in this place, but that’s not much comparison. You also may have won a spelling bee or some other award sometime in school and he’s one of five people in history who has won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal all together (thanks Wikipedia). So yes, you and he are quite different, but do you have to be?

Maybe not. First, what specifically has he done? Well, Mr. Borlaug, the aforementioned agronomist geezer, was able to quietly save millions of lives over the course of his own. How did he do it? Not in the flashiest of ways to say the least. His notoriety (or, perhaps, lack thereof) stems from his discovery of a strain of disease-resistant wheat which he helped implement in famine-prone countries. To make a long story short, the wheat has thrived and saved millions from starvation. Like I said: Flashy? No. Heroic? You bet.

I haven’t done the polling, but, I think it’s safe to assume that if most college students were told that they’d do great things in life, they wouldn’t know quite how to react. Great things are cool, but no fame in an age where you get famous for eating bugs, spending some time in a house, being good at travel is no big deal. C’mon! All things considered, though, you might think, saving lives does sound kind of cool. How do I get in on that?

Well, you’re first going to have to accept the fact that what you’re doing is not quite pop-culture yet. Again, no polling, but if I mentioned malaria to a decent number of college students I don’t think anyone would get close to guessing the number of deaths suffered due to it each year, which is about 3 million. It’s also the leading child killer in the world- 3,000 children die due to malaria per day. Also, I don’t think many would get close to knowing how easily it can be prevented.

“Malaria is now just a disease of logistics,” said Lance Laifer, founder of Hedge Funds Against Malaria. What he means is that it is completely curable–we just have to get the details right. Where do the details start? For one, there is a serious lack of bed nets in areas where malaria is most common. One bed net can cover either two children or one adult. These nets will prevent malaria-carrying mosquitoes from biting at night- when they are most likely to. No bites, no malaria. Yet, have the nations of the world allocated enough to ensure that everyone who needs a net gets one? No.

The nets aren’t that expensive either. One net costs five dollars. Think about that, five dollars saves a life. We’re not quite there yet though, currently global spending against malaria is at about 2 billion dollars per year. With one billion people in need of nets, our current spending policy falls 3 billion dollars short, leaving millions to die each year because we refuse to fork up the cash.

That said, the structure is in place here at Cornell for us to make a big impact. Cornell’s “Cover Africa” group is proactively tackling the Malaria issue head on. Their website, lists a great number of ways to get involved fighting the disease. On April 25th, Cover Africa organized a “sleep out” on the Arts Quad on National Malaria Day.

Think of it, if half the Cornell student body were to get involved, say by donating five dollars each through sites such as MyBedNet.com, we would save seven thousand lives right off the bat.

At a lecture given last week, Mohamed Yahya, a Darfur refugee, exclaimed, “Change always begins with the students!” The statement came as he was thanking student activists for the attention they bring to the Darfur crisis, attention which Nick Kristof says is the reason why 200,000 are dead in Darfur and not one million. With that same type of passion, we have the ability to make a serious difference in the fight against malaria in a quiet but revolutionary way. Change always begins with the students. People are counting on us. Let’s not let them down.