A friend recently gave me a ticket to a hockey game. I couldn’t help but noticing the high cost of tickets; the average ticket costs $50.
Mark Manary, a WUSM pediatrician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, is saving the lives of children in Malawi with peanut butter. His revolutionary new method for treating starving children in malnourished regions could become a worldwide standard of care.
My attendance at this game reminded me that numerous people spend substantial dollars to go to sporting events. As I watched the game tonight it occurred to me that whenever 20,000 people each pay $50 to go to one hockey game, the total gate for the event is $1 million. That $1 million is spent solely to distract and entertain the people for a few hours. The money is for pure amusement, of course, even when it’s the “game of the century.”
An average of 20,000 starving children each year enter the so-called Nutritional Rehabilitation Units in hospitals throughout Malawi.
The arena literally filled up with Americans. 60% of Americans are overweight and half are obese. But Americans are largely in denial regarding the extent of this problem.
When Manary first traveled to Malawi a decade ago, he was eager to make a difference. Everyone told him to stay away from the nutrition wards in the large hospital where he worked. It will depress you, they told him.
People want to think of some dollars as “entertainment dollars” and others as “charity dollars.” Most people despise the thought that dollars are totally “fungible.” Actually, that’s not strong enough. That dollars are fungible is a toxic thought they can’t even acknowledge. They build big walls around this thought in their minds so they don’t accidentally consider it. If they dared to consider it, they would claim that they were being victimized: ”It’s not fair that the fungibility of money has moralized everything. It’s just not fair that the same dollars I can use to buy a hockey ticket can also be used to save the lives of several starving children.”
It costs between $12 and $14 to feed a child back to health at home with the peanut butter mixture, Sandige said.
Most people say that to be moral one must follow a set of rules such as the Ten Commandments. These rules of morality allegedly apply universally because all human beings allegedly deserve respect. In the abstract, most people would consider it highly immoral to spend $50 on pure entertainment when that same amount of money could save the lives of four children.
The southern African country of Malawi, where Manary works, could soon become the first nation to switch to feeding malnourished children at home with spoil-proof foods.
“This is not a real moral conundrum,” says the voice in my head. “I haven’t met that starving child. She is not in my realm of concern. There will always be hunger.”
Human beings that live across the world are no less human that those that live next door. If the children living overseas could ever look us in the eye, we’d be so ashamed of buying those $50 tickets that we’d curse professional sports. It’s that ocean between us that allows us to go to professional sports events.
Severely malnourished children are fragile and need stabilizing treatment to recover from starvation, dehydration and illness, she said. Parents often are unable to provide that care at home.
The gate at one hockey game ($1 million) could save the lives of 70,000 starving children. Spending big money on sports is just one of the many ways in which Americans consciously decide to entertain, pamper and decorate themselves rather than spend that same money to save the lives of other human beings. I’m not I’m picking on spectator sports because they just an especially visible way of spending huge amounts of fungible dollars. This could have been an article about jewelry, SUV’s, expensive homes or vacations to Las Vegas.
Rains come to Malawi only once a year, between November and March. It’s the same time that subsistence farmers are running out of the crop they harvested in April or May. It’s the period when children become malnourished. It’s called “the hungry season.”
With regular practice, directing our own attention away from painful issues allows us to live our lives in relative peace. Original sin has been described as the overwhelming misery that oppresses people and inclines them toward evil and death. We are exposed as original sinners whenever we deny the undeniable truth that dollars are fungible. “But,” that inner-enabler voice says, “the Ten Commandments don’t actually mention anything about fungible dollars.”
Washington University medical student Heidi Sandige showed up in Malawi in June 2002 to work with Manary. When she arrived, Project Peanut Butter didn’t have quite enough money to pay its nurses for the next month. Manary wasn’t worried. He ran the project on $5 to $50 donations collected by his two children back in St. Louis, she said.
At the final buzzer, the sports fans applaud and smile. No lives were saved tonight.