Atlantic Monthly

Need a Lawyer, Stat

Sub-Saharan Africa has it bad. The Lancet notes that it “carries 25% of the world’s disease burden yet has only 3% of the world’s health workers.” The doctors tend not to get paid on time, and they often have to fight the world’s ghastliest diseases with the medical equivalent of bows and arrows. A tropical disease specialist in London once advised his patient to save airfare: rather than visit the Congo, he said, just open your mouth and leap into a cesspool.

But this is no “international crime,” and the invocation of that vague and misleading category in this case deserves our scorn and derision. The situation is at best much more complex, morally, than the authors let on, and it may well be exactly the opposite of what they argue. Would any of these poached doctors have even trained to become doctors, if their future consisted of a lifetime of not being paid by the Zambian government? How many Africans aspired to be doctors and improved themselves, even though they never got into medical school?

Lastly, the irony of constructing nitpicking theoretical arguments about “international crime” exposes the sad, creeping dilution of that phrase, not that it was ever a strong brew to begin with. Africa is a continent rife with real cases of repugnance, and some of the repugnance spills across borders. Better that we save that phrase for when the machetes come out.

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