I’ve been watching these films as part of the Take One Action Film Festival, and the recurring theme is colonialism is a living force in the world. People talk about the legacy of colonialism, as though that process of domination, cultural eradication, and extraction of wealth stopped, and we now live in a time after that, where we are dealing with the consequences of that time. But what we are labelling as the consequences are the ongoing effects of a power dynamic that never stopped.
I highly recommend you see this film, The Fever, because it is an education. As someone who reads a lot about history, has a degree in it, and is not unfamiliar with how things got be the way they are around the world, I am constantly still finding out things about the British Empire and the way it conducted itself. It is a giant lacuna in British cultural consciousness and education.
The Fever focuses on the fight against malaria. Now, malaria has kinda dropped off the attention of health reporting, in favour of the bigger, more acute epidemics like ebola, zika, and now coronavirus. The dull grind of persistent but treatable diseases don’t make for such sexy stories, even if they do kill half a million people a year. And the last time I can remember anyone talking about malaria, was in my Modern Studies class at secondary school, where it was taught as part of the reason African countries were having trouble paying back debt as part of Structural Adjustment Programs. We were taught that their malaria was a problem, their family sizes were a problem, their geography was a problem. Never was colonisation the problem.
Malaria boomed in Africa because imperialist policies completely changed the geography, turning forest into brickfields and rice paddies, to make products to be sold abroad for profit. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in shallow bodies of stagnant water, which rice paddies are ideal for, as are the puddles of water need to mix soil into mud for bricks. Thus there is an explosion in mosquitoes carrying malaria, and the infection of the surrounding populations of people put to work in these new industries. The prevalence of this disease is a man-made catastrophe.
Another thing I did not know was how early there was treatment for malaria. During the Vietnam war, the Vietnamese asked China for aid in their war with the Americans. As the Vietnamese soldiers were getting sick with malaria, the Chinese used their medicinal expertise to come up with artemisia annua, which when prepared as a herbal tea, effectively treats malaria, and can prevent it with regular consumption. It’s close to a cure. And it is possible to say that Vietnam may not have won the war, were it not for its protection of its soldiers against the disease, being able to put men in the field and keep them there without them falling ill or dying.
So how could we have discovered a cure in the 1970s, but half a million people are still dying of this every year? Good question, and basically what this film’s about. Official treatments for malaria include chloroquine for prevention and Coartem for treatment, both of which are seeing their efficacy drop due to drug-resistance malaria. Even the insecticide put on mosquito nets is seeing a drop in efficacy as mosquitoes grow accustomed to it.
The film focuses on local scientists and doctors in Uganda and Kenya as they try to distribute cheap, locally sourced solutions to this problem affecting their own people. Coartem is a Swiss-produced drug that uses artemisia – 40 years after the Chinese discovered its use – but it is only licensed for treatment after malaria has occurred. Local scientists want to use artemisia tea to prevent malaria in the first place.
And this is where the power dynamic comes in. Coz it’s profitable to make an expensive processed chemical treatment for a recurring condition, and not so profitable to cure people by telling to make a tea once a week from a particular herb they can grow in their garden.
Even if NGOs such as the Gates Foundation were to provide a vaccine, that also would be purchased directly from GlaksoSmithKline, and have to be imported to African nations. And the Ugandan or Kenyan government could tax the imports, make itself a little income, get a cut of the action. Nobody profits if African people are self-sufficient. Except the millions of people who wouldn’t die.
Current treatments are out of reach financially for most people, and many people go into debt trying to pay for their medicine. Nationally it is an enormous piece of expenditure for the government to import huge quantities of this drug from abroad every year. So you would think they would support local scientific efforts to reduce these problems. But no. Because it is much more important to keep friendly with rich and powerful entities such as the Gates Foundation, Novartis, and the WHO. Uganda and Kenyan doctors try to get government licenses to produce artemisian suppositories, or BTI tablets, here in the effected countries, but they are continuously denied.
To some extent, I guess it’s just about what science looks like. White people mixing artemisia in a stainless steel drum in an automated machine spinning on its axis looks like science. Mixing artemisia in a plastic bucket by hand doesn’t look like science. Logically, the same ingredient is coming out the side of the process, but the optics don’t carry the same legitimacy.
And that racism pervades every step in this process.