Poisoned chalice

27 Aug 2018


EVERY generation has a way of thinking of the young one coming after it is dangerously finding new ways in which to mess with the way nature intended things to be.

So it was that the celebrated British poet Edwin Brock (1927 to 1997) found himself musing on the death of man. The age through which he lived and that preceding was characterised by war, violence and want: large-scale industrialisation, shifts in the global order, the World Wars — to say nothing of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the early ’70s, he found himself driven to write Five Ways to Kill a Man (the anthology by the same name was published much later) in which he dilates on the ways humanity has found to murder and maim through the ages.

The poor Pakistani is exposed to all sorts of lethal dangers.

“There are many cumbersome ways to kills a man,” he begins, describing crucifixion as requiring: “[...] a crowd of people / wearing sandals, a cock that crows, a cloak / to dissect, a sponge, some vinegar and one / man to hammer the nails home.” He goes on through the list of sword (involving white horses, English trees, flags, a prince and “a castle to hold your banquet in”); “blow gas” and “a mile of mud sliced through with ditches” (referencing the Great Wars) and the age of aeroplanes (referencing the atomic bomb).

“These are, as I began, cumbersome ways” he concludes. “[…] Simpler, direct, and much more neat / is to see that he is living somewhere in the middle / of the twentieth century, and leave him there.”

I am reminded of this poem as corresponding to Pakistan every time news comes up regarding how many ways there are of killing a person in this country — so much so that it would appear that merely being here may well be enough. The rates of maternal and child mortality do not bear repeating, and if a child is tenacious enough to survive birth, many challenges await him.

The issue of children’s malnourishment and stunting are so well known as to have the new prime minister Imran Khan refer to them in his inaugural speech. Having lived through this — albeit having got a start in life that will haunt him for the rest of his life seeing the effects on the brain and body of these two factors, particularly during the first five years of life — what awaits the poor Pakistani is all sorts of lethal dangers that run the gamut from road accidents to serious illnesses that are preventable but are often not because of abysmal healthcare standards and access to it.

And if we — you and I — can make it even through this, too, there’s always the threat of violence or illnesses such as naegleria fowleri (brain-eating amoeba) or dengue or simply cholera and dysentery and pneumonia that lurk threateningly and are the demonstrable effects of the country’s realities such as poverty, poor hygiene and sanitation, over-crowding, and so on.

Such a long preamble is to provide context to the news that came up recently. Titled An Experimental Study of Arsenic and Lead Concentration in Common Food Sources, carried out by the Department of Community Health Sciences of the Aga Khan University in collaboration with Jichi Medical University in Japan, the study finds high likelihood that Pakistanis are consuming edibles contaminated by lead and arsenic. The researchers picked up chicken meat, lentils and potatoes from the open market in Karachi. These were washed and cooked for 20 minutes in tap water, in utensils made of aluminium, iron, stainless steel, and non-stick cookware.

The result — as one has unfortunately become used to expecting — was that food contamination is fairly high. Chicken, it was found, was uniformly contaminated in both raw and cooked form, most likely because of the feed given to broiler chickens. Aluminium and steel utensils turned out to particularly interact with lentils, causing the leaching of lead during cooking. The study recommends more research to be carried out.

There’s no need to panic just yet. The problem is not that of contamination of the food chain in Karachi alone — to take just one of so many examples, food adulteration levels are also high, as are disease-causing hygiene standards. And the issue is not limited to Pakistan either — again, of so many examples, even developed countries are increasingly considering measures such as fat and salt taxes to try and reverse the insidious health consequences of junk and processed food.

But the worrying point is that such contamination are just one of so, so many health challenges faced by the citizenry. Which one would kill a man? Any, or all together? Or is there some comfort to be found in the most basic fact of life, which is that it will end — perhaps is it better to not delve too deeply into it, and work with increased effort on education instead?

The writer is a member of staff.


Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2018