The official definition of a famine:
- More than 30% of children must be suffering from acute malnutrition
- Two adults or four children must be dying of hunger each day for every group of 10,000 people
- The population must have access to far below 2,100 kilocalories of food per day
This how the UN now characterizes the worst drought in Somalia in 50 years. When the UN declares a famine in a country of 3.7 million people, that means that either 1,200 children or 600 adults are dying of hunger. Every single day.
Two weeks ago, 140 million people either watched or listened to the verdict of the Casey Anthony trial. Enraged, people protested. Last week, people watched Rupert Murdoch testify before the British Parliament as he tried to defend his company against allegations of cell phone hacking. And right now, people are flooding to the Dadaab refugee camp in Northern Kenya in unprecedented numbers, as mothers come from Somalia, Uganda, and Kenya in search of food, water, and medical care for themselves and their children. If they haven’t perished already on the long journey to Dadaab, malnourished children are succumbing to disease and dying from starvation. The latter has not received the coverage it warrants, as the Guardian explains:
This is a children’s famine, and it shines a light into the empty places of our conscience.
Arot Katikov is the opposite of a thriving western baby. Looking much younger than he is, the boy can’t stop crying and vomiting, and he has diarrhoea. On arrival at Lodwar district hospital he is discovered to be suffering from malnutrition and one of its complications, tuberculosis. When Setina, aged 10 months, turns up at the same place, she faints with hunger. Her mother, Ngiupe, grabbed Setina and her brother and ran from their farm near the Ugandan border when Pokot raiders came and stole their cattle and killed their neighbours. Setina’s three-year-old brother died on the way to the hospital, and she is now lying in her mother’s arms, too weak to lift her head, her eyes glazing over as her mother rocks her to sleep or oblivion.
Further to the south, Somalia is suffering its worst drought in 50 years. This is the children’s famine. Running from conflict, and sick with hunger and thirst, people are fleeing to the borders or the aid camps, many children dying on the way or too weak to survive once they get there. In some areas one in three children is seriously malnourished and at severe risk of death. In October the rains will come, most likely bringing epidemics of malaria and measles. Some of the children just lie down and wait for death, which is likely; or mercy, which is elsewhere.
This week, while the famine was happening, every media outlet in the western world devoted itself to the circus surrounding a gang of communications reprobates. Public outrage over News International is justified, of course, and the abuse suffered by the family of a murdered girl cannot go unheeded. There can be no hierarchy of moral outrages, and the wrong done to Milly Dowler and her family and dozens of other victims should be its own category. But must it chase the possible death of 500,000 children off the front pages? We don’t have to find the Murdochs acceptable in order to find the famine intolerable, but it is no category error to think of them at the same time.
How is it possible that this can happen in 2011? To say that it is a travesty that the world has collectively ignored this crisis would be cliché, since it is not a departure from the norm. But I am not sure how else to describe it.
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Photo credit: Foreign Policy magazine