The great recruitment programme for the Boer War at the end of the nineteenth century was the first eye-opener for the British Army as to how the nation’s diet had substantially altered in an extremely short space of time. From possessing a population in the mid-Victorian era that recent research has shown was healthier than we’ve ever been since, the health of England’s cannon-fodder had been ruined by food imports from the colonies; salt-heavy tinned meat, syrup-heavy canned fruit and sugar-laden condensed milk had served to wreck the iron constitution of John Bull. A different kind of diet, though no less damaging, was exposed this week following emergency surgery on a defector from North Korea, revealing a body riddled with grisly parasites.
Apologies if you’re eating as you read this, but the defector – also a military man – was operated on in Seoul to repair injuries sustained during his escape from South Korea’s neighbour. One parasitical worm removed from the injured man was 27cm long, extracted from his digestive tract by a surgeon claiming to have only ever come across such internal infections in medical textbooks before. One would assume a major qualification for joining any army is to have an above average level of physical fitness, so if this soldier is in such bad condition, what does that imply about the rest of the North Korean people?
Nutrition and hygiene in North Korea have long been suspected as being pretty appalling, though the closed shop the country remains has prevented any sustained study of the nation’s diet. Most of the conclusions made by outsiders are dependent upon examinations of recent defectors, and the kind of parasites discovered during the operation on the latest escapee were apparently commonplace in South Korea half-a-century ago until economic improvements all-but wiped them out. Again, apologies are in order if you’re perusing this post with your egg & chips, but some believe the use of ‘night soil’ (i.e. human excrement) as fertiliser in North Korea could have a lot to answer for. The drying-up of state-supplied chemical fertiliser from the 90s onwards has resulted in this desperate scenario, encouraged by the far-from malnourished Kim Jong-un, a man who probably doesn’t have to eat his own shit.
Corn was also prevalent in the soldier’s stomach; more and more North Koreans are dependent on cheap imported corn from China (49,000 tonnes this year so far) following a series of droughts in the country. The scraps of info available, such as that supplied by the World Food Programme, paint a bleak picture of a populace decimated by drought, famine and a totalitarian regime viewing it as utterly dispensable. According to the WFP, North Koreans are on average 5 inches smaller and 15 pounds lighter than their South Korean counterparts due to decades of poor diet with a distinct absence of protein and fats; a quarter of pre-school children are estimated to suffer from chronic malnutrition. The contents of the escaped soldier’s stomach appear to serve as evidence of what a lifetime of a limited diet imposed by Government can do.
Of course, the West’s health worries are of a different nature; unlike North Koreans, we have an abundance of choice, albeit both good and bad. The plague of obesity may contrast sharply with the widespread malnutrition in Kim Jong-un’s backyard, though even the relatively recent upsurge in home-grown fatties is nevertheless something we’ve been sliding towards over the last affluent hundred years. It can be traced all the way back to the point in the nineteenth century when processed sugar and salt-based foodstuffs superseded the previous dependency on fresh veg, fruit, fish, eggs and nuts. The impact of just one generation hooked on such a diet was as evident to doctors examining volunteers for the Boer War as any exploitative Channel 5 documentary about ‘Britain’s Fattest Bastard’ would today show how dangerously pivotal the innovations of the late Victorian dinner-table have become to the twenty-first century appetite. Ironically, Kim Jong-un has the kind of physique more characteristic of the West than the Far East, though he (like us) has the choice to overindulge if he so wishes.
However, whilst the imposition of physical ill-health via the portly gangster running North Korea may be unique to dictatorships, the mental malnutrition that goes hand-in-hand with it isn’t. A nation such as ours might be able to boast a higher standard of living for its people than North Korea, though the austerity measures of the past seven years, which have hit the poorest hardest, have long been linked to the increasing tendency of more people than ever to prop themselves up with antidepressants. A new report even attributes Tory policies since 2010 to 120,000 deaths. From a steady decline in mortality rates between 2001 and 2010, the authors of the study claim this trend has subsequently been reversed from the Coalition onwards, with more than 45,000 deaths during the first four years of Dave’s stint at No.10 than anticipated as funding for health and social care fell in real terms.
It’s hardly rocket science that if healthcare provision is underfunded, those most reliant on it are at greater risk of their lifespan being reduced. The social care budget between 2010 and 2014 dropped from 2.20% to 1.57%, and the spending constraints then coincided with a sudden rise in the death rates. One of the paper’s authors referred to austerity policies as ‘a public health disaster. It is not an exaggeration to call it economic murder’. Critics have called the conclusions drawn in the study as ‘speculative’, though I often marvel at the fact that the entire population hasn’t formed an orderly queue at Beachy Head, considering the increasing paucity of reasons to keep buggering on. Then again, at least we’re not living off ‘night soil’. Yet.
© The Editor