New Internationalist

The Petition

January 1984

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GLOBAL REPORTING [image, unknown] Child health

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An appeal for health care in Colombia.

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A second look

Since this cartoon strip was written by Peter Stalker the inquisition comes on this occasion from co-editor Debbie Taylor.

Editor: Rosa really did die afew months earlier. But the comic strip style makes that tragedy seem unreal. Surely that’s unforgivable.

Peter Stalker: Yes, this is a true story.

And it is unusual for real life to be illustrated in this way when it is not intended to be a caricature. If this gives an effect of unreality it is only because this is the way cartoons are conventionally seen in our culture. Maria herself would be more used to seeing dramatic events illustrated in this way and would not, I think, take offence. But I do hope it is not felt to be insensitive by Western readers either.

Editor: It seems strange to have a doctortalk about redistribution in a story about ‘barefoot’ health workers. Isn’t the doctor part of the problem?

Peter Stalker: Yes it is odd. But it was the local doctor who told me about the predicament of the villagers in the first place. Since he is unrepresentative of the medical profession as a whole, however, I should maybe have made the point in a more general way. Still, it is reassuring that there are relatively wealthy Colombians who regard the present distribution of resources as unjust.

Editor: Your bubbles literally put words into peoples’ mouths. Would a Colombian peasant really know her children were dying of dehydration?

Peter Stalker: Probably not. But the cause of death had to be introduced early for the story to make any sense and this device probably rings a bit false. Had they actually known enough about dehydration they would probably have been able to treat it. There are traditional remedies that produce a liquid similarto that which the sachets offer. But the older women, who were the only ones in the village who knew about this remedy, remembered the mixture as a diarrhoea treatment and knew nothing about dehydration. The aura of modern medicine, however, causes people to look outside their own resources for treatment.

Editor: Doesn’t the use of a cartoon strip oversimplify the issues?

Peter Stalker: I don’t think that a cartoon strip does necessarily create a simpler picture in the mind than a written article or a television film. These might give more detailed pieces of information but they do have to be absorbed as a sequence and one idea or image can often obliterate the previous one. So you might for example only remember one picture from a television programme. In a cartoon the eye can wander back and forth more easily and may actually build a more complex picture in the reader’s mind even if what appears on the page is very simple. At least cartoons have the virtue of appearing to be superficial while other media are less willing to admit it.

Editor: Surely you don’t believe that 14,000 children a day will be saved by oral rehydration? Even if food isn’t a problem for La Esperanza it is in many other places.

Peter Stalker: Rehydration could save a high proportion of these children, temporarily at least. You’re right thatfood is the major problem for many children. If they are malnourished they are less able to resist infection and so are more likely to get diarrhoea. Rehydrating them either orally or intravenously might keep them alive but it won’t stop them getting diarrhoea again orfalling victim to some other fatal disease. La Esperanza has just about enough food but many other villages in Colombia do not - thanks to a grotesquely unjust land distribution system. But even in La Esperanza there will be other things than can kill the children which is why it is important that they have a broadly-based health care system.

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This feature was published in the January 1984 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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