If you’re over about twenty, you’ll probably remember 2005’s Live 8 concerts, the Bob Geldof-orchestrated anti-poverty events in the lineage of 1985’s Live Aid.
The day itself was a decidedly mixed bag. Yes, it brought a sudden, massive burst of publicity for humanitarian crises across the world, not to mention a deluge of popular compassion. But that global awareness was depressingly short-lived, and the aid promises it wrung out of world leaders ultimately proved hollow. It was a good-natured stab at changing the world and a bumper day for record sales. Having ticked the altruism box for another decade, egomaniac Bono-and-Madonna types could cheerily go back to raking in the dough.
You might also remember the starkly-shot videos of sombre celebrities clicking their figures released to publicise the events, and interspersed between the live acts themselves. They were arguably the most memorable and effective part of the whole media-straddling shebang – a simple yet shockingly memorable insight into the minute-by-minute tragedy of global poverty. It had been calculated that a human being died every three seconds of the effects of extreme poverty, and each click represented another life needlessly snuffed out on a planet that could provide enough to feed everyone.
Since Geldof and co didn’t save the world, that mind-mangling, unfathomable statistic still stands – every 3.6 seconds, someone dies from poverty. The majority are children under the age of five. That’s approximately 16 lives a minute, 950 lives an hour and 22,000 a day.
This month, then, roughly 660,000 living, breathing, feeling homo sapiens will agonisingly cease to function through lack of the most basic human needs. That’s equivalent to over half the people in Birmingham, the entire population of Leeds and considerably more than the populations of most English counties, Somerset included.
Poverty, lack of healthcare and squalid conditions kill pregnant women at a rate of one a minute. This month 42,000 of them will die, mostly during childbirth.
In the same period, an easily preventable disease like malaria – one mosquito-defeating malaria net costs about £3.30 – will kill at least 60,000. People succumb to the virus at a rate of roughly 2,000 a day. Some estimates are far higher.
March will see around 283,000 killed by water-borne diseases – grotesquely, the same number of millionaires living in the UK in 2010, and just a small proportion of the 780 million people worldwide without clean drinking water.
About 180,000 will die as a result of HIV/AIDS devastating their immune system. Roughly a quarter of that number will succumb to tuberculosis, a disease that will alone kill 116,000.
Without even touching on the piles of civilians chewed up in wars from South-east Asia to Africa to South America, we’ve already reached an abjectly horrific figure – by the end of the month, over one and a half million human beings will have died preventable deaths, completely ignored by the vast majority of Western civilisation.
And these are just the deaths, not the millions more on the brink – the 2.6 billion people without basic sanitation, the one billion plus drinking hazardously unclean water, the 870 million who are undernourished and the 600 million who live on less than one US dollar a day.
It’s near-impossible for well-fed Westerners to comprehend what it must be like to exist surrounded by this kind of inescapable anguish – not only to cope with the constant throbbing ache in your own belly, but having to torturously watch the miraculous bits of life you’ve produced break down, fall apart, shrivel up before your eyes and be utterly helpless to do anything to prevent it.
You can drink the probably diseased water, probably get catch an illness your malnourished immune system might just be able to fight off, but run considerable risk of death – or not drink it and die anyway. Obviously, you drink the water – but how crushed do you feel watching your children and your friends and neighbours gulping it down, pathogenic microorganisms and all?
There is precisely nothing you can do, while people you know, you like, you’ve spent your life with, succumb to ailments that are pathetically treatable. You spend your waking hours powerlessly wondering who will drop next – and it’s the children that drop the quickest.
Trapped in a starving, diseased, impoverished part of the world and forsaken by the rest of the human race, watching toddlers keel over just as they’ve sparked into consciousness and started to comprehend the world around them, must be the closest to hell you can get in a godless universe.
While we in the ‘developed’ world have rumbled through the most extravagantly wealthy decades of our history, hundreds of millions have needlessly died. The waste of life has been monumentally, repulsively, shamefully huge, and we’ve done next to nothing about it.
The point isn’t that we could instantly solve all these problems. But with effort, we could. Physically, materially, it’s well within our means to eradicate poverty. It’s only culturally that we can’t, or won’t.
Some exceptional individuals try, giving as much as they can afford to the charities heroically propping up hundreds of thousands of lives. For decades, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer has argued that the comfortably off have an ethical duty to donate large amounts of their income to tackle global poverty. Singer himself gives away 25% of everything he earns, a proportion a lot of Westerners could easily match given the amount wasted on things people don’t need.
But a permanent solution requires us to go further. We could be radically humanitarian, have our governments orchestrate a massive, permanent transfer of wealth and resources from the bloated Euro-American part of the world to the global South. In doing so we’d only be fulfilling a moral obligation to the most abused and neglected people on the planet. It’s tempting to cringe-worthily quote Thomas Paine: ‘The World is my country, all mankind is my brethren, and doing good is my religion’. But for the vast majority of us, made selfish and insular and cowardly in societies shaped by self-serving wealth, that kind of radicalism is unthinkable. As glum as prospects for change might seem, we have to strive to raise awareness, to hammer home the scale of the daily catastrophe, and try and bring about a situation where it isn’t.