“In Deadly River, Ralph R. Frerichs tells the story of the epidemic—of a French disease detective determined to trace its origins so that he could help contain the spread and possibly eliminate the disease—and the political intrigue that has made that effort so difficult. The story involves political maneuvering by powerful organizations such as the United Nations and its peacekeeping troops in Haiti, as well as by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Frerichs explores a quest for scientific truth and dissects a scientific disagreement involving world-renowned cholera experts who find themselves embroiled in intellectual and political turmoil in a poverty-stricken country.” Source: Cornell University Press
Nine months after the catastrophic January 2010 earthquake that took over 220,000 lives, UN ‘peacekeeping’ troops from Nepal brought cholera to Haiti and unleashed an epidemic that continues to this day. It is estimated that 7% of Haitians now carry the bacteria; over 8000 have died. Yet, the UN denies culpability (although Ban Ki Moon has indicated that he understands the origin of the disease) and continues to fight “the most organized challenge to UN immunity yet” (New York Times).
Deadly River explores the history of the investigation into cholera by telling the story of French epidemiologist Renaud Piarroux, who was invited by the Haitian government to study the emerging infection. Frerichs worked closely with Piarroux as well as relying heavily on journalistic accounts and official documents in weaving this tale about the intersections of politics and science.
From the moment that Piarroux’s investigations began suggesting UN-troops as a cause, his efforts were obfuscated, thwarted, and misrepresented by politicians the world over, including some in Haiti, who were relying on UN-peacekeeping forces to maintain lawfulness during a contested election season. Frerichs’s engaging story conducts itself like a thrilling mystery in which we follow Piarroux along the course of his investigations – to villages in Haiti, to France, to official hearings and boardrooms. I simply loved the ways in which Frerich brings out the exciting ‘detecting’ element of scientific research – he presents clues about the discovery of cholera’s origin as they unfolded for Piarroux, offering a fascinating look into how a large-scale scientific exploration with political implications takes shape.
But Deadly River is not just a scientific-research journey; Frerichs presents an abbreviated science of cholera and epidemiology of cholera pandemics, and focuses extensively on efforts by the UN, ambassadors from various countries, the US of course (including the CDC), etc – to politicize the science in order to protect their interventionist efforts.
Ah, the eternal story of colonization: “world powers” settle into a region to ostensibly offer protection or support (or, not so long ago, to offer “culture” and “civilization”), but end up sowing other forms of devastation in their wake. Deadly River is an excellent case-study into this sadly vast field.
I have one complaint which brings my rating down to 4. Perhaps this is not a flaw as much as a misalignment of my expectations and Frerich’s purpose and scope. Deadly River would more aptly be subtitled – “One Doctor’s Journey into Fighting Politics in the Name of Science – the Haitian Cholera Episode”. Because, as much as Frerichs does name other players, they are but tangential to Piarroux. And, as much as he purports to be writing in the name of justice for the people of Haiti, he’s actually just writing in the name of science, for Piarroux, because he does not include accounts of actual Haitians, except as described fleetingly by foreign doctors, aid workers, and the like.
What I’d love to read after this, and a needed companion, would be an oral history of cholera in Haiti (wish someone would recruit Svetlana Alexievich for this). While I understand that perhaps Haitian voices fell out of Frerich’s scope, he does make pronouncements and conclusions as if his believes his work to be for justice. But how can you talk about justice when you haven’t spoken with one person this crisis affected directly? That kind of imposed justice is no better in some ways than the UN’s sincere efforts to help after the Haitian earthquake. It consists of decisions and appraisals from afar, by armchair experts who don’t bother to consult the people on the ground, and it smacks of its own flavor of colonialism.
Still, an engaging, scientifically and politically significant work that touches on an important but entirely overlooked (in US journalism at least) modern-day crisis caused by Western interventionist, colonial/imperial policies.