A buzzing economy helps keep malaria at bay

EVERY nation gets the government it deserves, the 18th century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre wrote. Venezuelans, who voted for socialist policies in successive elections, are now getting just what they deserve, and more.

News has emerged of widespread malaria epidemics occurring in areas of Venezuela that had been malaria-free since the early 1960s. As southern Africa moves towards malaria elimination, these reports should give ministers of health, policy makers, and everyone else, food for thought.

Malaria is the latest misery to befall Venezuelans since Hugo Chavez turned the country into a socialist paradise.

Venezuelans have endured high inflation coupled with shortages of medicine and food, and an absence of beer. As with every other socialist country, the Venezuelan government has resorted to violent repression of protest. It is even turning itself into a quasi-slave state by press-ganging individuals into agricultural work groups in an attempt to increase food production.

READ THIS: SA could be free of malaria by 2020

While Venezuela is regressing on all fronts, insofar as malaria is concerned, most other countries are making impressive progress. Thanks to increased funding, mostly from the US, and new research, more Africans have access to malaria prevention from insecticide spraying and mosquito bednets. New malaria treatments mean also that, once diagnosed, the chances of dying from this parasitic disease are greatly reduced. According to the World Health Organisation, between 2000 and 2015, the number of new malaria cases globally fell 37%, and the number of malaria deaths fell a remarkable 60%.

Impressive gains occurred in southern Africa. Through their commitment to malaria-control policies based on sound scientific evidence, SA, Namibia, Swaziland and Botswana are on the cusp of an historic feat — the complete elimination of locally transmitted malaria. Before we start to celebrate these successes, however, it would be wise to examine some malaria history.

Zambians now do enjoy relatively well-controlled malaria, but there was a time in the early 1960s, when the disease had been all but eradicated. Under President Kenneth Kaunda’s socialist government, by the 1980s and 1990s malaria had roared back, taking the lives of thousands of Zambians.

Zimbabwe had malaria well under control until President Robert Mugabe destroyed the country’s economy.

It turns out that when a country’s economy is destroyed, it is not just businessmen and property owners who suffer. A shrinking economic base means a shrinking tax base, which in turn starves public health officials of the funds they need to prevent disease and save lives. Furthermore, when people have no jobs, they also have no money to buy medicines or to afford basic measures to protect themselves from disease.

Two further examples are important — the islands of Mauritius and Zanzibar. Although both have had successes against the disease, only one, Mauritius, managed to eradicate the disease in the 1970s, thanks to indoor spraying with DDT. But Mauritius did something else — it started freeing up its economy, opening up to global trade. Predictably, growth followed and the wealth created meant that the government, as well as individuals, could keep malaria at bay.

READ THIS: In the ancient war between humans and mosquitoes, the pests are winning

Zanzibar has been close to malaria eradication several times, yet the disease persists. Being close to mainland Tanzania does not help, as increased movement of people carrying malaria parasites can cause a reintroductions of the disease. A bigger problem for Zanzibaris is that the government has never reformed its economy. Stuck with outdated socialist policies, the island has remained poor and unable to control the disease on its own. Now, thanks to US funding, malaria rates are low, But, in time, donors will pull out. With no economic reform and domestic wealth creation, we can expect malaria cases to rise again.

If we can learn anything from Venezuela and the successes and failures of malaria control in Africa, it is that economic policies that free up the economy and lead to growth are as important in saving lives as almost anything else. We need the insecticides and medicines, and the means of distributing them. Economic freedom and the wealth it creates do not just improve material wellbeing, they save lives.

Chavez found some prominent cheerleaders in the likes of actor Sean Penn and movie director Oliver North for his brand of Venezuelan socialism. These Hollywood stars have been oddly silent since the country descended into a state of desperation and violence. Presumably they are happy to remain in Beverly Hills and enjoy the fruits of a free society, after having helped to deny these fruits to Venezuelans.

Why are cheerleaders for socialism silent now that children are dying from preventable and curable diseases?

• Urbach is an economist with the Free Market Foundation

This article was first published in Business Day on 16 September 2016

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