Death in the Congo


Last week the International Rescue Committee released its latest mortality survey for the Democratic Republic of Congo. They do a survey every 2-3 years; the methodology is as sound as it can be given the circumstances, and these surveys are widely acknowledged as the best estimate of how many people have died as a result of Congo's wars.

I read the survey. I'm used to this stuff. It's what I do every day. But even I couldn't take the new finding that 5.4 million people have died as a result of the country's ongoing conflicts since 1998.

Deaths continue at a rate of 45,000 per month. The mortality rate is 2.6 out of every 1,000--85 percent higher than the norm for sub-Saharan Africa.

5.4 million people is the population of Colorado. It's also the population of Denmark. Imagine what it would be like if every single resident of those places died within 10 years.

The old number we worked off of was 3-4 million. That was bad enough.

The sad part is that these deaths are categorized as "excess deaths"--deaths that wouldn't have happened if it weren't for the wars and the ongoing insecurity. But here's the thing: the baseline for determining what an "excess death" is not what it would be in Austin, Texas, or Washington, D.C., or Nashville, Tenn.

Instead, they use the standard accepted mortality rate for sub-Saharan Africa, because this takes into account the fact that lots more people die when you live in a place that has inadequate health care, nutrition, sanitation and clean water. So the 5.4 million who have died from this conflict is ON TOP of who knows how many millions who wouldn't have died if they'd been born in a luckier place on the other side of the world.

What makes it even sadder is something we already knew: most of these deaths (about 90 percent) are not the result of violence. The hundreds of thousands of women who are violently raped, those shot or hacked to death by the militias--they're a small percentage of the total number. Instead they're caused by things like diarrhea, malaria and malnutrition that were exacerbated by the insecurity.

When your already substandard health care system completely falls apart or rebels ransack your local clinic, suddenly your children die for no good reason at all. If your hometown is too insecure to ensure that your anti-retroviral drug treatment can be monitored, the donors won't fund a program to treat your HIV/AIDS.

I can't process death on this scale. It's like talking about the Holocaust, only there is no Hitler. The causes are so complex and so many are to blame that it's virtually impossible to fix. My heart hurts to know that so many innocent people have suffered so much for such low stakes.

And the stakes are low. Some people will tell you that the Congo wars are about power, or about minerals, or about what happens when nobody governs. All of these things are true.

There's no question in my mind that my desire for a nice laptop and a good cell phone and a flat screen TV is highly likely to help fuel the Congo conflict--that coltan has to come from somewhere.

Sam Davidson has an essay about intentional poverty, choosing to live simply so that you can help others with the money you would have spent on yourself. It is, I think, the only right response to the massive inequalities that plague our world. Jesus said a lot about how we treat the poor. He didn't say anything about us needing the latest and best of everything.

I don't think my comfort is worth 5.4 million lives.

Laura Seay is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas studying social services in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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Tags: Laura Seay, Politics, Poor, Poverty


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