Sunday, May 06, 2007

cure worse than disease

There is an incredible story in the NY Times today. It seems that the combined corruption of the Chinese and Panamanian governments and business communities allowed 46 barrels of poison to work their way through the supply chain and end up in cough syrup manufactured and distributed to its citizens last year by the government of Panama. An estimated 365 people died as a result, possibly more.

In the early 1990s, thousands and possibly tens of thousands of people, most of them children, died from a similar poisoning in Bangladesh.

Beyond Panama and China, toxic syrup has caused mass poisonings in Haiti, Bangladesh, Argentina, Nigeria and twice in India.

In Bangladesh, investigators found poison in seven brands of fever medication in 1992, but only after countless children died. A Massachusetts laboratory detected the contamination after Dr. Michael L. Bennish, a pediatrician who works in developing countries, smuggled samples of the tainted syrup out of the country in a suitcase. Dr. Bennish, who investigated the Bangladesh epidemic and helped write a 1995 article about it for BMJ, formerly known as the British Medical Journal, said that given the amount of medication distributed, deaths “must be in the thousands or tens of thousands.”

Why is this happening?

An examination of the two poisoning cases last year — in Panama and earlier in China — shows how China’s safety regulations have lagged behind its growing role as low-cost supplier to the world. It also demonstrates how a poorly policed chain of traders in country after country allows counterfeit medicine to contaminate the global market.

But why are we hearing about this story now? Why is it on the front page of today’s New York Times when the deaths occurred last year or 15 years ago? The answer is simple enough.

China is already being accused by United States authorities of exporting wheat gluten containing an industrial chemical, melamine, that ended up in pet food and livestock feed. The F.D.A. recently banned imports of Chinese-made wheat gluten after it was linked to pet deaths in the United States.

Evidently it takes the deaths of thousands of pets—tragic in its own right, no doubt—for the American public to take notice of the deaths of thousands of people in places where, after all, people die in large numbers all the time with barely a mention in the U.S. media.

Nevertheless, I think this story is a great piece of journalism, and I hope it leads to some pressure from the U.S. government and business community on China to look at how absence of rule of law in China could seriously impact the bottom line of businesses there and here, and hence, the viability of the Chinese government in its current form.

While primary responsibility for this particular cock-up rests with the counterfeiting poisoner himself, then with the Chinese government, the corrupt Panamanian traders, and the ineffective government of Panama, there’s more to this story than that.

If American businesses make loads of money from low-cost Chinese imports, and the low cost of those imports is based in part on the malleability or absence of a regulation or twenty, then American businesses and consumers are reaping the benefits of a system that kills an unknown number of people each year in parts of the world without effective rule of law or regulatory safeguards.

My guess is many readers of the Times piece will have the same reaction I did when I first read it: Dear lord, first pets and now people! When will this end? And: Watch out for cheap chemicals from China. Worry for your personal safety or that of your family is a natural first thought when presented with something like this. But hopefully a secondary reaction would be concern for the thousands (millions?) who’ve died or are at risk abroad from a global trading system built and run according to the specifications of the United States for the greater prosperity of its people.

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