History

Drain the Swamps

by reestheskin on 04/06/2020

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From an article in the LRB by the historian of science, Steven Shapin. The book under review is The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator by Timothy Winegard. The story — if you can call it that — is malaria.

There’s​ a pub quiz question: ‘What’s the deadliest animal?’ Lots of people guess sharks (just four deaths a year), lions (a hundred), or crocodiles (a thousand). The animal that causes the second highest number of human deaths is other humans (475,000), but the answer is the mosquito, at 750,000 deaths, many of them caused by diseases other than malaria.

The subsequent destruction of the Pontine hydraulic works was also an act of war. On the advice of German malariologists, the Wehrmacht, retreating from southern Italy in the winter of 1943-44, flooded the Pontine Marshes with seawater to bring back mosquitoes – and malaria – as an obstacle to the Allied forces who were landing at Anzio, south of Rome, as well as to punish the Italians, who had just switched sides. The outcome of the Battle of Anzio wasn’t much affected by the Nazis’ act of biological warfare – both sides suffered – but it had a marked effect on Italian civilians: in 1939, there were 614 cases of malaria in the area; in 1944, there were 54,929.

The wretched of the earth suffer from underdevelopment, which is both a cause of their malarial afflictions and an effect of malaria. And they suffer from political indifference, as the jobs of prevention and cure have increasingly been off-loaded onto charitable foundations: the Rockefeller Foundation in the early part of the 20th century, then the Gates Foundation, which now spends more on global health than the World Health Organisation. Bill Gates has pointed out repeatedly that more money goes into curing male baldness than into research on the prevention and cure of malaria [emphasis added]. Capitalism is ‘flawed’, he says, and the persistence of malaria is a failure of the marketplace.

The political swamp breeds the inequality and poverty on which malaria thrives; the physical swamp breeds its insect vector. Drain the swamps.

Facts, dear boy. Facts.

Steven Shapin · Drain the Swamps · LRB 4 June 2020