by Nicholas Casey
THE ALBINO MINE, Venezuela — The 12th time Reinaldo Balocha got malaria, he hardly rested at all. With the fever still rattling his body, he threw a pick ax over his shoulder and got back to work — smashing stones in an illegal gold mine.
As a computer technician from a big city, Mr. Balocha was ill-suited for the mines, his soft hands used to working keyboards, not the earth. But Venezuela’s economy collapsed on so many levels that inflation had obliterated his salary, along with his hopes of preserving a middle-class life.
So, like tens of thousands of other people from across the country, Mr. Balocha came to these open, swampy mines scattered across the jungle, looking for a future. Here, waiters, office workers, taxi drivers, college graduates and even civil servants on vacation from their government jobs are out panning for black-market gold, all under the watchful eyes of an armed group that taxes them and threatens to tie them to posts if they disobey.
It is a society turned upside down, a place where educated people abandon once-comfortable jobs in the city for dangerous, backbreaking work in muddy pits, desperate to make ends meet. And it comes with a steep price: Malaria, long driven to the fringes of the country, is festering in the mines and back with a vengeance.
Venezuela was the first nation in the world to be certified by the World Health Organization for eradicating malaria in its most populated areas, beating the United States and other developed countries to that milestone in 1961.
It was a huge accomplishment for a small nation, one that helped pave Venezuela’s development as an oil power and fueled hopes that a model to stamp out malaria across the globe was at hand. Since then, the world has dedicated enormous amounts of time and money to beating back the disease, with deaths plummeting by 60 percent in places with malaria in recent years, according to the W.H.O.
But in Venezuela, the clock is running backward.
The country’s economic turmoil has brought malaria back, sweeping the disease out of the remote jungle areas where it quietly persisted and spreading it around the nation at levels not seen in Venezuela for 75 years, medical experts say.
It all starts with the mines. With the economy in tatters, at least 70,000 people from all walks of life have been streaming into this mining region over the past year, said Jorge Moreno, a leading mosquito expert in Venezuela. As they hunt for gold in watery pits, the perfect breeding ground for the mosquitoes that spread the disease, they are catching malaria by the tens of thousands.
Then, with the disease in their blood, they return home to Venezuela’s cities. But because of the economic collapse, there is often no medicine and little fumigation to prevent mosquitoes there from biting them and passing malaria to others, sickening tens of thousands more people and leaving entire towns desperate for help.Share