What Happens When Famine Strikes
PERSONS who are used to having all the food they want may find it difficult to imagine what happens to people when famine strikes.
Consider as an example conditions in Bangladesh. This country of southern Asia has been ravaged by floods recently, creating the need to set up “gruel” kitchens to feed masses of starving people who flock into cities looking for food. A special report to the New York Times describes one of these:
“At a typical gruel kitchen at Mirpur, a crowded suburb of [Dacca], 1,000 people line up for one piece of roti, or unleavened bread, made of wheat flour. The ration is supplemented by one protein biscuit and three ounces of milk donated by the Red Cross. This food is served only once a day in the afternoon. There is so much scrambling and fighting that the supervisors have used canes to keep order in the crowd, made up mainly of old men, women and children who look shockingly famished.”
Outside this city conditions are even worse, the report says. There “the destitutes begin coming to the feeding center in the early morning for half a piece of roti that will be handed out in the late afternoon. No milk or lentils are supplied.”
Desperate Search for Food
Nigeria’s Daily Times, in its issue of November 28, 1973, reports concerning famine conditions that had developed at that time in the northeastern part of the country: “People . . . are now pulling down ant hills in search of food believed to be stored there by the ants as the onslaught of the drought in the state and devastation of farms by locusts persist.”
India, too, is undergoing extreme famine conditions. State officials say that villagers in isolated areas are living on roots, leaves and grass from parched rice fields.
A foreign relief worker reports on conditions in Calcutta: “By nutritional standards some of these people should be dead. You see some children eating grass, rats, the green scum off tanks.” Bernard Weinraub, writing in the New York Times of September 5, 1974, states: “The most searing scenes are visible. A child watches another eat an ice-cream stick. When the ice cream is finished and the wooden stick tossed in the gutter, the watcher picks it up and sucks it.”
The search for food has sometimes led to tragic consequences. The newspaper West Australian explains:
“Thousands of people are said to have died in Iraq in what is being called the biggest mass poisoning calamity in history. . . .
“The victims are said to have eaten grain treated with a mercury solution and intended to be used only as seed. . . .
“The police had issued strict warnings that the grain must not be used for human consumption, but the grain was stolen during unloading and transportation.
“Some who ate the grain died and others were crippled, blinded or made deaf by brain damage.”
Dismal Side Effects of Famine
Dying by starvation is a drawn-out, agonizing affair. But long before death overtakes a person, lack of nourishment begins to take its toll.
In a recent interview Dr. Nevin S. Scrimshaw, an authority on world malnutrition, explained that where malnutrition is common “laborers often have to be given tasks that take only two or three hours a day. Men and women can’t work longer on the calories their meager diet provides.” He explained that this dilemma is “self-perpetuating,” for one who can work only a few hours a day cannot afford enough food to provide strength for a longer workday.
Even a person who may receive an adequate quantity of food will suffer if it is of poor nutritional quality. Vitamin A deficiency, for example, brings on many serious vision defects. Shortage of iron in one’s diet leads to anemia. A diet deficient in vitamin B1 results in disease of the nervous system and heart, and lack of iodine in the diet of a pregnant woman can contribute to a physically dwarfed and mentally retarded offspring.
Columnist Martin Walker actually saw such things on a recent visit to West Africa. He relates:
“We walked through the tents, looking at feet that had swollen, like footballs, from protein deficiency, at eyelids chalk-white from anemia, at limbs so like sticks that the knee joints looked gross and deformed.”
Children the Special Victims
Children are the special prey when famine strikes. A seriously malnourished baby becomes apathetic, withdrawing into a bleak, empty world of its own. The columnist quoted above reports what he observed:
“It suddenly occurred to me that there were no children following us. In most villages in Africa, a white man strolling around bears a long train of giggling, thumb-sucking children. But here, not one child had the strength to play or to follow or even to wave away the flies that crawled on his sores.”
Further illustrating the effects of famine upon children are comments in World Health of February-March 1974:
“A typical example of mere survival is a two-year-old South American child from the poorer class who has had six attacks of infection of the eyes, five attacks of diarrhoea, ten infections of the upper respiratory passage, four attacks of bronchitis, measles followed by broncho-pneumonia and an episode of stomatitis. In 24 months, this child has had nearly 30 attacks of illness and has had one infection or another for about a third of his life. His diet has been inadequate.”
Damage to children may even begin before birth. Human brain cells, for instance, multiply most rapidly during the fifth and sixth months of pregnancy. After birth they continue to develop for about eighteen months. If a baby has been deprived of essential protein during this critical period, it may result in brain damage.
Effects on People’s Thinking
Famine indeed causes harm to people physically. But what are its mental effects? If famine were to strike in your area, how would it affect your thinking and conduct?
The way people react to food shortage depends on their attitude toward the distressing circumstances. In some cases famine has driven people to a “me first,” “every man for himself” attitude. This has led to frightful consequences.
Hungry people have already wreaked havoc in India, Bolivia and Ethiopia, rioting and looting stores of grain. M. P. Tripathi, a legislator from India’s northeastern state of Uttar Pradesh, warned: “There will undoubtedly be thousands of deaths on account of hunger. Crime will increase and riots will break out at several places.”
The pangs of hunger have driven some persons to terrible extremes. Newsweek of October 7, 1974, gives an example:
“In search of food, men are leaving their wives and children to fend for themselves. The Indian press reports cases of families committing suicide together rather than die a lingering death of starvation, and of distraught fathers throwing small children into the rivers to drown.”
The severe famine-producing drought in Africa’s Sahel area produced yet another ill effect in the form of “traumatic psychological shock to the people of the Sahel,” according to one report. “When a peasant loses faith in his land, and when a nomad loses his trust in the fertility of the desert, the effect is a kind of psychological castration.”
Some of the “solutions” suggested reflect the helplessness of mankind in the face of worsening food shortages. Certain authorities have suggested mandatory sterilization. Another seriously considered suggestion is “national triage,” a procedure to minimize deaths by helping only those who can be saved by immediate attention, while others, viewed as beyond help, would be left to die of starvation.
A Different View Possible
Some, though, have taken a surprisingly different course of action under conditions of severe starvation. In the fiendish Nazi concentration camps, for example, thousands of persons slowly starved to death. This plunged many to the depths of degradation and despair, moving some to commit suicide.
One report, however, speaks of certain individuals, “themselves marked for death, [giving] some of their scant bread rations to those having a harder time of it than they were. Often it was just crumbs that they secretly hid under the pillows of those who for some reason or another had not been given anything to eat and who had been forced to stand out in the courtyard in the fierce cold with hardly anything on.”
What caused those persons to act so differently under conditions of extreme starvation? Why did they not follow the selfish course of other prisoners?
It was because of the way they viewed their plight. They were Jehovah’s Christian witnesses who had been imprisoned for their faith. They saw in the oppressive world conditions, which included severe famines in many parts of the earth, the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy concerning the conclusion of the present system of things and, consequently, the incoming of a righteous new order in which famine will be a thing of the past.—Matt. 24:3, 7; Rev. 7:16.
That promise causes Jehovah’s witnesses to have an entirely different outlook on world conditions. Instead of selfishly rioting, hoarding, or in other ways trying to amass all the food they can get, these Christian people heed the principle: “Let each one keep seeking, not his own advantage, but that of the other person.” (1 Cor. 10:24) They know that, even if they die of starvation, the Bible holds out the comforting promise of a resurrection from the dead into an earth forever freed from the grip of famine.—Rev. 20:13; 21:3-5.
What happens when famine strikes, therefore, depends upon whether food becomes the most important thing in the lives of the victims. Those with the Bible-based hope of a new order are able to maintain a bright outlook even when famine strikes. For they know that in God’s new order, which, according to Bible prophecy, will begin within the present generation, “there will come to be plenty of grain on the earth; on the top of the mountains there will be an overflow.” (Ps. 72:16; Matt. 24:33, 34) Famine will never strike the human race again.