India is phasing out the use of DDT, but it’s not tackling its long-term effects

India is phasing out the use of DDT

A few weeks ago, India entered into an agreement with the UN to end the use of the insecticide DDT by 2020. DDT had been used in agriculture for decades until it was restricted in 1989, but 6,000 tonnes of DDT are still produced annually for the eradication of mosquitoes and other pests. This would be perfectly understandable, except for the simple fact that DDT has become ineffective — in the last decade, most insects have developed a resistance to it. The resulting instinct to simply use greater amounts of DDT or replace it with other harmful Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) has infused India’s soil, water and air with a concoction of noxious chemicals.

Other insecticides and pesticides that are used specifically for agriculture further contaminate our environment. After it restricted DDT, the government began encouraging the use of other POPs that were potentially even more harmful, such as HCH (later banned in 1997), endosulfan (later banned in 2011) and then lindane (restricted in 2012). Rather than acknowledge that the makeup of all POPs render them intrinsically harmful, the government seems to be promoting different POPs in turn until each is found to have tangible toxic effects.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that India is the second largest producer of pesticides inAsia and the fourth in the world. Samples of drinking water across India show high concentrations of HCHs, endosulfan isomers and DDT metabolites. Laws in India do permit some level of these substances in food and water, but these amounts are many times higher than those allowed in the West. DDT doses in food, for instance, are permitted to be seven times higher than doses in the European Union; lindane doses are allowed to be a 100 times higher and endosulfan doses 40 times higher (and 200 times higher for water). The air in Indian cities has also been recorded to contain the highest concentration of HCHs in the world.

The pervasive presence of DDT and other POPs is a consequence of their slow degradation. DDT-infused indoor insecticide spray used thirty years ago still lingers on the walls of homes. Crops that are grown in fields that were sprayed with DDT in the last decades show substantial traces of the insecticide. Unfortunately, the degradative products of some POPs are also highly toxic.

Because of their resilience, POPs have a tendency to persist in organisms. This leads to bioaccumulation, which means that the higher up an animal is in the food chain, the greater the concentration of a POP it contains. For instance, while the dose of DDT in one worm might not substantial, a bird that eats three worms ingests an amount that might be lethal to it. In the US, the use of DDT has been proven to thin out eggshells and make them prone to breakage. This has resulted in the severe decline of several species of birds, including America’s national bird, the magnificent bald eagle. In addition to birds of prey, waterfowl and songbirds, marine life is especially susceptible to the bioaccumulation of DDT. Fish from the rivers Gomti and Ganga have been found to have concentrations of DDT a thousand times greater than limits proposed by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Humans, at the top of the food chain, are at great risk of ingesting harmful amounts of the insecticide. Samples of women’s breast milk in Delhi were found to have levels of DDT 12 times higher than those recommended and blood tests were also shown to possess unsafe levels of POPs. In human and animal bodies, large amounts of DDT turns cells carcinogenic, provokes endocrine disruption and corrupts reproductive systems (diminishing semen quality and increasing the potential for miscarriages in mammals).

Rachel Carson, through her groundbreaking book Silent Spring, galvanised the American public in the 1970s into protesting the use of DDT in the US. “In nature nothing exists alone”, she said. Carson showed that the use of DDT tore apart delicate ecological systems developed over millennia by inducing resistance in certain species and poisoning others. Moreover, DDT and other POPs can be found hundreds of miles away from the area they were used in. Soil erosion and rainwater runoff and wind and water currents means that no place, no animal and no person has escaped these chemicals. Freshwater bodies in India are contaminated with POPs, as well as a large portion of the country’s groundwater.

The Indian government has shown resistance to changing the current situation. During the Stockholm Convention on POPs in 2011, India was the only country to resist the ban of endosulfan, probably because it was the largest producer of the POP in the world. It only ratified the agreement when certain crops were exempted from the endosulfan ban. Shockingly, this meeting took place after official reports had acknowledged in 1995 that the use of endosulfan in the state-owned plantations in Kerala caused at least 500 deaths, though unofficial estimates put the number at 4,000. More than 9,000 people were sickened in the endosulfan tragedy. Babies were increasingly being born with abnormalities, neurobehavioral disorders and congenital malformations.

Kasargod, the area in Kerala that was affected, was also once very rich in wildlife. But after the use of endosulfan, plant diversity decreased by 40-70%, fish species died in droves, and honeybees and butterflies were noticeably absent. A large number of animals and birds — the endangered Nilgiri langur, the jungle cat, the mouse deer, the flying fox, the fairy- bluebirds and large cuckoo shrikes, to name just a few— disappeared.

While part of the problem lies in the fact that POPs are fatal, other issues stem from their incorrect usage. Many farmers in India tend to use insecticides indiscriminately. Moreover, huge amounts — more than 47 tons — are lying in storage in various parts of India, past their expiry date. Like the radioactive waste from a nuclear reactor, these chemicals must be contained, lest they risk contaminating their surroundings. There is also a depressingly small amount of research being done about POPs and the impact they have specifically in the Indian context.

Much more needs to be done by the government, scientists, agricultural workers and environmentalists to ensure that POPs are disposed of safely and used in a limited manner — or even better, replaced with environmentally friendly insecticides and pesticides. As Rachel Carson asked, “How can intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”


Reflections of an Aid Worker from South Sudan

BANGKOK – The life of an aid worker is almost never easy, but adjusting to normal life comes with its own difficulties. Roman Majcher never makes plans for a night out in Bangkok city, where he is stationed now, because he would probably end up drowsing off on a barstool. In South Sudan, where he had spent the last ten years, everyone would have to turn in when the sun went down. There was never any electricity to waste, because South Sudan completely lacks a power grid. The only people who had electricity were those who could afford their own generator. There was also no sewage system and no running water. Water was taken straight from the Nile and delivered in trucks, unfiltered, to the humanitarian camps where Majcher worked as an aid worker.

“You think Afghanistan is bad to work in? Well, Afghanistan is paradise compared to South Sudan”, Majcher said, gesticulating emphatically. “There is nothing there, and nothing works.”

South Sudan is a country the size of France, and has only 360 km of paved roads. People who live outside the cities are completely cut off from the rest of the world. Aid organizations usually rely on helicopters to drop off food, water and medicine to desperate people. But during the rainy season, or in conflict-prone areas, transportation becomes exponentially harder. In these cases, Majcher says, bitterness entering his voice, “people starve and then they die. it’s as simple as that.” In most villages, living until thirty-five means you are old.

Working in these situations, where you are faced with immense psychological stress, guilt and physical hardship, it can get very hard to go on. Even more difficult is conceding that the unspeakable suffering you are confronted with is caused by unacceptable reasons that are difficult, if not impossible, to change. The government policy in Khartoum, for instance, was to actively keep South Sudan as undeveloped as possible. It only allowed enough aid in to keep the area under control, but kicked you out if you wanted to create something more sustainable.

“Realizations like these were the hardest to stomach,” Majcher said, shaking his head. “I was young and stupid and idealistic when I first started humanitarian work. I didn’t really understand that people could be agonizingly evil to each other on purpose. There aren’t really good guys or bad guys. Everyone is as opportunistic as the next person.” Many other misconceptions Majcher had were shattered too. He realized that the poor could be as corrupt and greedy as the rich, that the needy would not always be grateful for his presence, that people would hate him simply because he was white, because it then followed that he was imperialistic.

Some aid workers cope with these mental burdens by becoming callous and numbed to the waves of human suffering they see everyday. Many more start to become viciously cynical and stop believing that their work matters at all. But Majcher believes that cynicism is anathema to humanitarian work; it is a cancer that, more than corruption, misinformation or even a lack of donor money, can render aid ineffective. Simply put, once you stop believing that your work makes a difference, you do not do it as well.

Majcher believes that the solution is not to be blindly idealistic or stupidly optimistic, but rather it is to make a conscious decision to ignore the bigger picture and focus only on the quality of the paint. “You need to accept that the world is messed up and will probably never be perfect,” Majcher said, peering earnestly through his wire-rimmed glasses. “But the point of your existence is to help ensure that, for now, this child’s life will be a little bit better. Even if it may end tomorrow.” This type of help is not necessarily quantifiable, but then again the most important things in life never are. Aid, contrary to how most people look at it, cannot always be seen as an investment.

This is a sentiment Majcher understands well. He was born with muscular dystrophy, a disease where your muscles are so weak you can barely move without falling over. At fourteen, Majcher’s body was so curved that his nose was bumping against his knees. Poland, his home country, was at the time still a communist nation with atrociously bad medical care and a depressing lack of resources. Even at that age, Majcher understood that he was dying.

But hope came out of nowhere. Doctors in France took up his case for no real reason, other than basic human kindness. One by one, they struggled through the visa processes and arrived in Poland, armed with instruments, machines, medicines and determination. They worked with him for seven years, conducting dozens of operations, until Majcher was well enough to live a relatively normal life. “Why did I win this lottery?” Majcher had always wondered. He began to feel that he had to pay back what he received.

Malthusianism: Theories on Poverty and Aid Theories on Poverty and Aid
Thomas Malthus was a clergyman and philosopher of the late 18th century. His ideas on the causes of poverty and the means by which it could be eliminated were controversial for his time and would probably have been unspeakable in ours. However, his work shaped England’s “Poor Laws,” influenced scientists and philosophers such as Charles Darwin, and remains pertinent today.

Malthus believed that the population would always increase more rapidly than food supply, which meant that large numbers of people would always suffer from starvation and poverty. His calculations demonstrated that while food supply grew at a linear rate, populations tended to grow at an exponential one.

The inspiration behind his ideas came from his work as a parish priest, where he noticed that the numbers of poor people he was baptizing far outstripped the number of deaths he was recording. As a member of a wealthy family himself, he was also struck by the abject poverty and miserable conditions the poor were living in. At the time, almost a seventh of England was on some sort of welfare, but its population was booming.

Carrying out more studies on England’s poor gave Malthus a clearer picture of the problem. Poor families showed a tendency to have more children when their economic situation improved, even slightly, as it had after the industrial revolution. This had the effect of again lowering the average living standard of the entire family.

In this sort of poverty trap, the poor would remain unable to escape their condition. A poor family was also generally more likely to have a greater of number of children because some were always expected to die in their infancy. The solution, Malthus stated, was to encourage the poor to marry later and have fewer children, if any at all. By having children, they would be sentencing more people to live in poverty and starvation.

The way to encourage the poor to adopt this solution would be to eliminate all types of aid. While this would initially be very hard and even cruel, it would eliminate poverty and dismantle the poverty trap in the long run.

What welfare did, Malthus believed, was encourage the poor to marry earlier even when they could not support a family and have children they could not afford. The effect of this was that families continued to be poor and live on the very barest of necessities. England’s Poor Laws, which propped up people who suffered from bad harvests, was creating the very poverty it hoped to eliminate.

Once these practices were taken up, food supply could finally keep up with the lowered population growth. If food supply could not keep up, Malthus believed that three necessary and inevitable things would take place: plague, famine and war. These would once again balance out the population, but at a much greater cost.

Critics have generally attacked Malthusianism from two different angles. One side believes that a small population is not good for a country. The Mercantalists argue that high population growth, even if it results in poverty, is good for the country. It would provide it with people to fight in the army, work in factories and provide cheap services.

Mercantalists did not want the population to earn very high wages or live far above the poverty line—this would stagnate economic growth and weaken the nation. Modern anti-Malthusians also believe that low birth rates are bad for the economy because the workforce would not be able to support its older population.

Other critics of Malthusianism believe that his proposed solutions are not the best way to tackle poverty. They are needlessly inhumane. Human ingenuity can come with with solutions to expand food supply to meet population needs. Norman Borlaug, the mind behind the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, is cited as an example. He created strains of corn and wheat that had much higher yields than before, saving millions from starvation.

Neo-Malthusians, as modern proponents of Malthus are called, say the current statistics speak for themselves. Populations in almost every developing country are growing rapidly as they become wealthier and advancements in medicine keep more children and older people alive. In the last 110 years, the world’s population has grown from 1.6 billion to 7.2 billion.

But 805 million worldwide go to bed hungry, and most are from developing countries. A fourth of people in Sub-Saharan Africa are chronically malnourished. More than 750 million lack access to clean water, which leads to 850,000 deaths per year. In major cities, such as Mumbai, half the population are living in wretched and slum-like conditions. In Sub-Saharan Africa, this number reached 61 percent. Most poor people continue to have more children than they can afford to take care of.

While the poor continue to have high fertility rates, they will continue to be poor. Neo-Malthusians advocate for better family planning, a change in societal expectations and norms, greater access to contraceptives and more education about conception to reduce the poor’s fertility rates.

Sources: Orion Magazine, Population Connection, Economist, BBC
Photo: Flickr

Debates Over Deworming
Although multiple studies have found that worm infections in developing countries should be treated with deworming pills, there is some debate within health organizations as to who qualifies for treatment. Currently there are 280 million children that are being treated for worms worldwide, but some experts believe that this is excessive.

When people are infected by worms, they suffer multiple ailments, primarily internal bleeding, which can lead to a loss of iron and anemia. Worms also cause diarrhea and malabsorption of nutrients. Compounding the problem, people also suffer a loss of appetite, which means they ingest less food overall. People most at risk are children and women of childbearing age.

Deworming people, especially children of a young age, has shown to be an effective measure to ensure that they stay in school for longer periods of time. A study conducted in Kenya after a deworming program showed that school absenteeism decreased by 25 percent. Even improved attendance in schools in which no children were treated within a three kilometer radius was remarked.

However, diagnosis is relatively expensive in developing countries because it involves a lab analysis of fecal matter, costing four to ten times the price of treatment. Some experts therefore recommend that mass deworming programs be carried out where a large number have been found to be infected.

This is currently the World Health Organization’s policy. Some scientists have challenged this practice, claiming that the available evidence is not enough to assure the safety or necessity of mass treatments. They believe that a lack of teachers, rather than absent children, are the cause of most problems in education in developing countries.

The deworming medication itself is extremely cheap, at just 30 to 40 cents per child. Many studies have suggested that this is a cost effective way of getting kids to go to school. These children also performed better at academic tests eight year later and at cognitive tests ten years later. In the southern United States, a deworming campaign in the early 1900’s had the same effects.

Sources: The Conversation, Harvard University, Voxeu, WHO
Photo: Answers

Power Africa Continues to Face Hurdles
In 2013, President Barack Obama launched Power Africa, an $8 billion foreign aid program designed to help improve access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. It aimed to provide electricity to the region’s 961 million residents, who currently only use as much electricity as New York City. Two thirds of sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to electricity.

Power Africa is adding 60 million new electricity connections and is generating up to 30,000 megawatts of power in six countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania. The project works with local and U.S. partners to improve regulations, build capacity and provide technical assistance. However, two years in, research has shown that Power Africa still faces major hurdles in its implementation.

In Kenya, for instance, the power grid infrastructure has rapidly expanded, covering most of the countryside. However, only 30 percent of Kenya, including just five percent of rural households, have power. Building a bigger infrastructure was not going to be a solution, researchers realized, because connecting to the power grid was much more expensive than what many households could afford. Moreover, Kenya lacked people who could design and construct electrical wiring. Even when a household bought a connection, it still took months to actually get electricity. When they finally did get power, it was extremely unreliable. Power outages would sometimes last for weeks at a time.

Power Africa has not brought any electricity to Nigeria at all. Bickering between government agencies, private companies and foreign governments has slowed projects down in a country that is not able to provide electricity to half of its population. Officials say there have only been conversations about potential projects in the future. The Obama administration has boasted of a few closed deals, but they had already been in the works before the Power Africa initiative.

In such countries, only the wealthy can afford electricity, which they get through the use of private generators. It has even become a status symbol to own one. However, private generators add to these countries’ worsening environmental problems.

President Barack Obama said, “Access to electricity is fundamental to opportunity in this age. It’s the light that children study by; the energy that allows an idea to be transformed into a real business. It’s the lifeline for families to meet their most basic needs. And it’s the connection that’s needed to plug Africa into the grid of the global economy. You’ve got to have power.”

The U.N. predicts that sub-Saharan Africans will make up nearly 25 percent of the world’s population by 2060. Ensuring that this generation has access to electricity in order to expand their economy, improve education and enhance living standards is important to mitigate poverty in future generations. Currently, blackouts are costing sub-Saharan Africa 2.1 percent of their GDP every year.

Sources: Reuters, USAID, NY Times 1, NY Times 2
Photo: NY Times

The Poor Find Haven In Monrovia’s Cemeteries
Liberia has had a trying past couple of decades. Most recently, it was plagued by the Ebola virus, which killed thousands of people. Before this, it had suffered though a 14-year-long civil war, which had taken place just a few years after yet another civil war ended. Both wars killed hundreds of thousands of people, leaving many homeless and destitute. Lacking housing or money, many poverty-stricken Liberians have turned to living in cemeteries, many of which are in Monrovia, its capital.

Most go to the Palm Grove Cemetery. Many of these dwellers arrived when they were just children and after their parents had been killed. Some had been child soldiers. They were taken there by friends from the street, who used the relative peace and security of the cemetery to indulge in marijuana, cocaine and heroin. They used tombs for shelter after smashing them open and throwing out their long-dead inhabitants.

Monrovians look upon the cemetery dwellers with distaste and fear. They are viewed as criminals and drug addicts who disrespect the graves of their families and are deprecatorily called “friends of the dead.” On Decoration Day, a public holiday when Liberians paint and adorn tombs, conflict always erupts between the tomb dwellers and the families of the tombs’ rightful owners.

Rather than provide an area for the homeless to live in, President Johnson Sirleaf simply put up walls around the cemetery in 2007 to keep them out. Just a few months later, however, people had already breached the walls to live in the cemetery once again. Now the walls serve to better hide the dwellers and their activities rather than keep them out.

Prostitution has also become commonplace behind the cemetery’s walls. Some women and girls are only able to survive through sex work. They are afforded no protection from the police, who often rape them themselves. Unwanted births are commonplace.

Many diseases also run rampant. Ebola was just another problem to add to a list of illnesses that included ones such as tuberculosis and diarrhea.

Hope may yet be around the corner for these cemetery residents. Last year, the British charity organization Street Child began to work with them, setting up counseling sessions, schools and rehab centers. However, many roadblocks stand in the way of their progress. It is extremely difficult for many residents to even consider weaning themselves off their dependency on drugs. Sometimes, drugs make them aggressive and hostile, which makes it hard for people from Street Child to engage with them.

The outbreak of Ebola also set back efforts. Schools were banned, as were public gatherings. Street Children also started redirecting efforts to the 2,000 children orphaned because of Ebola. Officials have been hostile to Street Children’s efforts in cemeteries, calling their residents a “lost cause.”

Now that Ebola has largely disappeared in Liberia, Street Children is ready to make a renewed effort to help the cemetery dwellers. To the charity organization, small successes have boosted their belief that these people can be saved from a lifetime of poverty and dependency.

Sources: Independent, BBC 1, BBC 2
Photo: Independent

Climate Change Refugees and the Man from Kiribati
A man from Kiribati, a tiny Pacific island, has asked New Zealand to officially recognize him as a climate change refugee. New Zealand refused what was the world’s first appeal for climate change refugee status, and Ioane Teitiota now faces deportation. Teitiota had argued that rising sea levels had damaged his crops and contaminated the water supply, and that he feared a worsening situation in the future. Kiribati is expected to be three-fourths underwater in just 30 years. Its government has had to buy land from Fiji.

Climate change refugees might soon become a common place occurrence. Sea levels are predicted to rise by at least a couple of feet in the next few decades. Cities, or even countries, that lie below sea level are at high risk of being submerged. Bangladesh, for instance, would have already lost 17 percent of its land by 2050. An estimated 20 million people from this highly over-populated country are expected to become refugees. Rising sea levels could also sink all 1,200 of Maldives’ islands. Its government is attempting to work out an evacuation plan with nearby countries. Other coastal cities such as Manhattan, London, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Mumbai are at risk. Entire cultures and identities could be wiped away forever.

Droughts and desertification are increasingly destroying arable land, forcing many people to migrate further inland to already crowded cities. The Gobi Desert, for instance, expands 3,600 km square each year. Morocco, Tunisia and Libya are losing 1,000 km sq each annually. Poorer countries that depend on agriculture for both economic growth and basic subsistence are heavily impacted by the increasingly extreme weather patterns. Food security will become a serious issue for many countries when it was not before.

Although the need for one is clear, a universally accepted definition of climate refuge is lacking. The Global Governance House defines climate refugees as environmental migrants forced to move “due to sudden or gradual alterations in the natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity.” Environmental migrants are defined as “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad” by the International Organization for Migration.

Last year, 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters. Of this number, an astounding 20 million were climate change refugees. António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, predicts that the number will increase rapidly, and not just because of changes in weather in climate. The shortage of food and clean water will lead to “resource wars,” as they are called in popular culture. Increased competition for water, food and grazing lands will lead to conflict. A recent study predicts that the probability of civil war will increase in Africa by more than 50 percent by 2030 as compared to 1990.

Sources: UNHCR, Telegraph, International organization for Migration, Global Governance House,National Geographic
Photo: ABC

Mice Utopias and the Behavioral Sink
John Calhoun’s Behavioral Sink experiment was undoubtedly one of the most discussed during the 1970s. It is still highly relevant today when the effects of overpopulation are discussed. With his “rat utopias”, Calhoun proved that overpopulation is not a problem because it leads to a scarcity of resources – overpopulation is a problem in itself. It results in violence, a rejection of social roles and the eventual breakdown of society.

Calhoun had been creating “rat utopias” since the 1940s, but it was only his “Universe 25” of 1972 that captured both academia and the public’s attention. Four breeding pairs of mice were introduced into a box 100-inches square and 54-feet high. It was a “perfect universe.” The mice were safe from predators and disease and given ample food and water. Calhoun was trying to figure out how the mice would react to it. After about 100 days, the mice started breeding. They doubled in population every 55 days.

Although the mice were in a sort of “mouse heaven,” things soon took a nasty turn. By Day 315, males had stopped defending their territory – there were too many mice to fight against. Random violence broke out between mice for no reason. Female mice would attack their own offspring. Normal social bonds and interactions completely broke down. Procreation screeched to a halt, infant abandonment soared, and mortality climbed. Cannibalism appeared, even though there was more than enough food, and some mice became pansexual, even though there were ample females for each male. As time went on, it seemed that the mice had lost the ability to carry out the complex social interactions that would allow them to procreate. Fertile females closed themselves off from society and males of reproductive age – Calhoun called them the “beautiful ones” – and did nothing but eat, sleep and groom.

This breakdown of society and social roles was named the “Behavioral Sink.” Calhoun believed it came about when there were too many mice and a lack of important social roles for each one to play. By Day 560, population growth ground to a halt. The box had 2,200 mice, although it was able to hold far more. Barely any mice survived past weaning. Calhoun found that even when enough of the population died off so that only an optimal population remained, the mice were not able to return to their natural behavior. Never being a part of normal society themselves, the mice simply did not know what it was; they did not even show the understanding that they were in an abnormal state of affairs. The population of “Universe 25” slowly became extinct.

Many people believed that the behavior of Calhoun’s mice and the Behavioral Sink could be extrapolated to humans. The connection between a breakdown of social bonds and violence was observed by Emile Durkheim in the late 19th century. In traditional societies, where family expectations and religion held sway, people enjoyed strong social bonds and had distinct social roles to fill. However, as they moved to cities, they found they were fighting for a place in society. In exasperation and a state of helplessness, many fell into poverty or turned to crime, violence and even suicide.

The fear of failing to be a productive member of society and fulfilling social roles can also push people, like the “beautiful ones,” into isolating themselves. The infamous Japanese hikikomori are a case in point. They are people who refuse to leave their rooms, sometimes for years at a time. They feel shame for being unable to fulfill familial expectations, find the “right” job or be a productive member of society. These men (and sometimes women) hole themselves up in their rooms and never come out.

However, it is not clear that a high population density necessarily leads to a breakdown of society and social roles. Humans might be able, with our ingenuity and almost unlimited demands, to create social roles for everyone and avoid the Behavioral Sink. Some critics, such as psychologist Jonathan Freedam, suggested that it was not the density of population that overwhelmed the mice but the large number of social interactions they had to deal with. Humans are able to avoid this, even while living in a highly dense area.

Sources: Cabinet Magazine, National Institutes of Health, Open Yale Courses, BBC

Psychological Effects of Poverty

Bradley Ariza, a man living in the U.K. with his girlfriend and children, is stressed all the time. In addition to constant hunger and insecurity, he needs to carefully calculate every calorie he eats to make sure he has enough, and count every penny he spends to ensure that his finances remain in order. He feels the constant pressure to maintain certain livings standards for his family. Poverty becomes a “physical and psychological condition,” not just an economic one.

Studying the psychological effects of poverty is not usually met with enthusiastic approval. In the past, such research was often tainted with racism. It was also accused as being a way of blaming the poor for their behavior. Sometimes it has been seen as unnecessary because of the belief that although the poor are more deprived, they are happier. However, scholarly and public opinions are becoming increasingly more open to studying the effects of poverty on psychology and behavior. It is slowly beginning to be seen as a way to tackle poverty.

Poverty creates a “mindset of scarcity,” as behavioral economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir have termed it. People are more likely to focus on current, pressing issues rather than long-term ones, even if they might be as important to their well-being. For instance, Indian farmers might prioritize their coming harvest over vaccinating their children. Some researchers have even found that the IQ of Indian sugarcane farmers falls just before their harvest.

Studies have already shown that poorer people have elevated levels of stress, and it is also widely known that stress is linked to depression. Depression, which causes absenteeism and lower levels of productivity, costs the U.S. and U.K. up to one percent of their GDP each year. People who are suffering from extreme stress and depression are less likely to make long-term investments in their health and education. They are more inclined to seek short-term rewards rather than long-term ones because they find it harder to delay gratification. These psychological effects of living in poverty make it more difficult for people to climb out of it.

Researchers are now exploring whether lowering stress and depression can improve people’s mental states enough so that they make better financial decisions and are more motivated about their future. When they are offered more psychological-centered treatments, such as therapy or counseling, people might be more likely to build a path out of the poverty trap. Studying this connection could also help explain why aid sometimes does not seem to work as it should. Microloans, for instance, might be financially helpful, but the added stress to repay loans might make poorer people’s lives worse.

Direct aid, instead of microloans, might be more beneficial. Johannes Haushofer, founder of the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, has started studying how stress affects one’s ability to make good financial decisions. He found that giving unconditional cash transfers to families lowered their levels of depression and stress. In turn, they were more likely to make long-term, thought-out financial decisions. The effects were especially prominent when the cash transfer was a big enough size and given to women.

Sources: Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, Harvard

India Fights Tuberculosis with Technology

The Indian government has increasingly used technology to aid its fight against tuberculosis (TB). By using biometric and mobile technology, it has been able to better ensure that patients take their proper treatment. This mitigates the risk of spreading the disease and developing into multi-drug resistant TB.

For a disease that kills more than 270,000 people in India and a few million worldwide in other countries, developments in the fight against TB have been slow to come. The vaccine that is currently being used to prevent TB is more than 85 years old and is only effective against certain strains of the disease in children. The most widely used diagnostic test was created 125 years ago and misses half the cases. It also cannot detect strains of TB that are resistant to drugs.

India passed a law in 2012 that made TB a notifiable disease, which means that doctors are required to report an infected person to the government. To make the process easier, the government has rolled out a program called Nikshay in private and public hospitals. Nikshay is an electronic reporting unit that uploads case files and treatment processes onto a single database across the country. This makes it easier to track people who have contracted the disease and ensure that they are taking the proper treatment.

In some places, Nikshay has been compounded with Aadhar, a biometric identification system that was rolled out a few years earlier. Aadhar gives every Indian citizen a unique number that is linked to a biometric card. Coupling the data in Nikshay and Aadhar improves monitoring and evaluation, and makes payments easier as Aadhar can also be linked to a bank account.

Treating TB is a long and complicated process. Estimates show that fighting TB can amount to 39% of a household’s annual expenditure. An infected person needs to take 13-17 pills daily for six months. If he stops his treatment before the proper time, he runs the risk of developing multi-drug resistant TB, a more virulent and difficult-to-treat form of the disease.

Some state governments in India have begun to use the SIMpill, which was originally implemented in South Africa a decade earlier, to ensure that the treatment process is completed correctly. It gives patients pre-programmed medicine bottles that are able to monitor whether pills are taken at the right time in the right amount. Each time the bottle’s cap is opened the central server is notified. If there is a discrepancy or a missed dosage, the patient and caregiver receives a reminder text message on their phone.

In another innovative use of mobile technology, some states have rolled out the Mobile Technology for Community Health program, which sends patients SMS reminders about appointments, treatments and health tips. The central government has also initiated the Missed Call Campaign, in which a person can give a toll-free number a missed call and have someone call them back to answer their questions.

Sources: Gates Foundation, Gizmodo, MOTECH, Global Health Strategies
Photo: The Hindu