LONDON – The tsunami in Japan, the earthquake in Haiti, and Hurricane Katrina are among the world’s most notorious recent natural disasters. Their fierce devastation claimed thousands of lives, destroyed vital infrastructure, and crippled economies. The communities affected could not be more different from one another, and yet the similarities in the responses are striking. The worldwide outpouring of support demonstrated what humanity is capable of at its best.
While international support in a time of crisis demonstrates a seemingly innate moral response to the suffering of others, it also highlights with disquieting clarity that the same level of empathy is more difficult to evoke when a crisis is chronic instead of sudden, unexpected, and dramatic.
One of the most devastating global health challenges on the planet is malaria, which claims more than 800,000 lives annually, primarily among young African children. According to the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, 2,000 children die of the disease each day. Yet, unlike the aftermath of a natural disaster, there are no photographs to capture the scope of this tragedy. The loss of life is every bit as devastating, but without the onslaught of grisly images, it is much easier to become indifferent to malaria’s victims.
Malaria deaths represent nothing less than a moral issue. This is why the United Nations, World Bank, Global Fund, Tony Blair Faith Foundation, African heads of state, and many other governments, organizations, and individuals have felt compelled to act.
In 2008, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared the goal of ensuring universal access to malaria-control interventions by the end of 2010 for all those at risk of the disease, with the ultimate goal of reaching near-zero malaria deaths by 2015.
Since those goals were set, major progress has been made. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved, and the international community now is redoubling its efforts to reach the 2015 milestone. Three years ago, when more than $3 billion in new money was committed to the malaria effort, mosquito nets and indoor spraying protected less than 20% of Africa’s at-risk population. Today, the proportion is more than 90%.
These gains occurred only because of the commitment of leaders, agencies, and individuals who realized that lessening the malaria burden is not only an opportunity, but also a responsibility.
No organization better embodies the moral imperative of ending malaria deaths than the African Leaders Malaria Alliance (ALMA). Formed during the UN General Assembly in September 2009 under the leadership of President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, and supported by the African Union, the group has added government advocacy and accountability to the combined efforts being made to halt and reverse the spread of malaria on the continent.
Recognizing that the death of a child from a mosquito bite is unacceptable in the twenty-first century, ALMA leaders understand that the most effective way to ensure that recent gains are sustained is to assume leadership and ownership of the challenge. They are taking concrete actions, such as ensuring that essential malaria-control interventions are exempted from taxes and tariffs that add unnecessary costs to life-saving items, and that supplies are purchased in bulk to reduce costs.
Most powerful of all, perhaps, is an innovative “scorecard,” which is being prepared to track progress in the struggle to end malaria deaths, and to “flag” problems that arise before they reach a critical stage. The scorecard will be open and accessible to all.
While African political leaders have ultimate responsibility for protecting their citizens, faith communities share deeply in this commitment. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation is conducting a global campaign, Faiths Act, which calls for greater engagement by faith communities in preventing malaria deaths. Supporters of every religion in 106 countries have answered the call.
Though accurate statistics are hard to come by, the World Health Organization estimates that faith communities provide, on average, 40% of total health-care services in sub-Saharan Africa.
What faith communities have working in their favor are networks, infrastructure, and influential leaders to deliver health messages. In many instances, they can reach deep into inaccessible rural areas to deliver services. When well resourced, faith leaders can adopt holistic approaches to major killer diseases and use their networks effectively for immunization and combating pandemics.
In Nigeria, which accounts for one-quarter of the continent’s malaria deaths, the Nigerian Inter-Faith Action Association has been particularly effective in training religious leaders for health messaging against malaria and in the correct use of bed nets. This initiative has received the backing of the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar III, the country’s leading Muslim, and the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Oneiyekan. There is a full-time, centrally organized office and team to co-ordinate this program. If it succeeds, the impact will be dramatic – and not just in Nigeria.
For example, Sierra Leone, with its small population, excellent Muslim-Christian relations, and uphill struggle to improve its health-care system after the depredations of civil war, has a longstanding relationship with the United Kingdom. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation has been in consultation with the country’s religious leaders and inter-faith association to develop a national program with the Ministry of Health that would promote the government’s key public-health messages, participate in education for bed-net use, and use available health assets and faith community networks.
Now is no time for indifference. Much significant progress has already been made; now we must consolidate our gains. As foreign aid stands to suffer from cutbacks around the world, we must remember that malaria is a “natural disaster” that is devastating communities every second of every day. Earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes can never be stopped. Malaria can be.