I’ve covered 14 wars and seen a lot of combat. But being shelled or shot at never scared me half as much as the fear of serious illness in the field.
While reporting on the 1980’s war in Afghanistan with the mujahidin warriors (“freedom fighters” back then/today “terrorists”), we were involved in a fierce battle with Communist Afghan troops. We fired volleys of rockets at them; they fired back at us with mortars and tank shells.
As shells exploded around me, the mujahidin chief announced, “now we stop fighting, Mr. Eric. It’s time for lunch!”
“But I’m not hungry. I came here to cover the fighting,” I pleaded, far more frightened by the local food – and particularly endemic hepatitis – than enemy shells. There was no denying Afghan hospitality. We piled into jeeps and returned to a nearby village for lunch.
I tried to beg off eating, claiming a toothache. But my Afghan hosts would have none of it. “Eat, eat Mr. Eric.” I suspected they had used up their week’s food ration to give me a small banquet.
Mr. Eric ate gingerly. My Afghan host sitting next to me suddenly threw his shawl over his head, lay down, and explained, “now I must sleep. I have the hepatitis.”
I survived this adventure, but have often fallen victim to food-borne illness in the Mideast, Africa and parts of Asia. For me, the most dangerous places have been Egypt and India, with Pakistan and Nepal as runners up.
In Egypt, the new, brutal military regime is too busy locking up members of the Muslim Brotherhood to care about its foul hygiene. When I first lived in Cairo, it was a week before I dared leave my residence, so virulent was dreaded “Gyppy Tummy.”
India, by contrast, is finally making a major effort to curb its awful sanitation problem which has gravely damaged national health.
In 1964, the acclaimed Trinidadian-Indian writer V.S. Naipaul went to discover his roots in India. Instead of enlightenment and pride, he discovered primitive hygiene and almost total lack of civic consciousness, as recounted in his “Area of Darkness.”
Most horrifying to Naipaul was watching Indians squat down and defecate in public. Indians shrugged off this problem by saying it was a custom of backwards rural people.
But the problem is not just in rural areas. In fact, an estimated 620 million Indians – 50% of the total population – defecate in the open. Some figures say the real number is 70%. India leads the world in lack of indoor plumbing. Runners up are Ethiopia (70%); Pakistan (27%): Indonesia (26%); and China (4%).
India’s flood of outdoor excrement has polluted ground water and generated a host of illnesses. Children in India, where 800,000 die annually, are particularly vulnerable. Polio, after having been nearly wiped out, has made an ominous comeback.
The ambassador to India of a western nation told me that at any given time, half his embassy staff was seriously ill. On my last trip to India I stayed at only the best hotels and lived mainly on cooked vegetables, rice and bread. Yet I – an old Indian hand – came down with a very serious illness whose after-affects lingered for five years.
India’s teeming cities lack adequate waste treatment systems; its rivers, upon which tens of millions depend for drinking water, are open sewers. Indian politicians have simply avoided this embarrassing issue or are too prudish to address it.
I recall taking a rowboat on the Ganges River at the holy city of Varanasi (or Benares), watching people drinking the water, washing clothes, gargling, and dumping remains of bodies burned on its banks. The brown waters were filled with human fecal waste and dead animals. How the 500 million Indians that rely on the Ganges can survive its toxins is one of Mother India’s deepest mysteries.
India’s new prime minister, Nareenda Modi, is finally attacking his nation’s primary health problem. Soon after taking office, Modi declared war on outdoor defecation and proclaimed his government’s priority would be building indoor toilets for tens of millions of Indians.
Good show. I recall China in the Maoist mid-1970’s. Mao, born a peasant, never used toilettes, preferring chamber pots or his garden. But when Deng Xiaoping took over, he declared war against filth, China’s disgusting toilets, and outdoor defecation.
Today, China’s sanitation is light years away from the old days. China has cleaned up its act, planted tens of millions of trees, and built sewage plants though China’s urban air remains highly polluted. I have never fallen ill in China from food though I’ve been to some very remote places.
India has the world’s third largest military budget, some $36 billion (the US spend close to $1 trillion annually). It is buying advanced missiles, nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, warplanes, nuclear weapons and modern tanks.
If Delhi can afford ICBM missiles, it ought to able to dig latrines, scrub streets, and install modern toilets for many of its people.
Let’s hope Modi does not get distracted from this vital mission. India can’t aspire to be a superpower giant as long as its feet remain mired in human waste.