Freedom may be hazardous to your health.
At least that was the implicit message in a December 5 New
York Times article which documented the tuberculosis epidemic
that is ravaging Russia and which is beginning to leak into the rest
of the world. Writing from the Russian city of Voronezh,
correspondent Abigail Zuger actually waxed nostalgic about the old
Communist regime’s ability to control threats to the general health
of the public.
is hardly new in Russia," Zuger wrote. "It ravaged the country in
the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. But before the
Soviet Union fell it was finally being brought under control,
through major government effort and expense. Infection rates, though
roughly three times higher than in the United States, were falling
in parallel with those in Europe and developed countries elsewhere."
But since the Russian people began their long climb back from
totalitarianism, public health has declined. The doctors Zuger
interviewed for her story obviously think the suffocating control
exerted by the Soviets had its benefits.
"In the days of the Soviet Union, the powerful Sanitation and
Epidemiology Service, or ‘SanEp,’ sought out infectious diseases and
stamped them out with compulsory vaccinations and annual disease
screenings," Zuger explained. "People suspected of harboring
infection were removed from society for as long as it took to
guarantee that they were no longer contagious. The SanEp tactics
were brutal — people were often taken from their families and
hometowns for months to years — but they were effective."
Zuger continued: "‘Now, instead, we have human rights,’ said Alla
Loseva, the Voronezh tuberculosis hospital’s deputy chief doctor,
rolling her eyes. SanEp is but a poorly funded shell of its former
self. Its job has fallen instead to doctors like Ms. Loseva,
struggling to contain the epidemic with minuscule budgets and
Nowhere in her story did Zuger fault the Soviet system for the
extreme deprivations it forced on Russian society over many decades.
The closest she came to condemning the Communists for anything was
when she blamed rising diphtheria rates on both "declining childhood
vaccination rates and the vulnerability of adults who had received
shoddy Soviet vaccines as children."
The Soviets didn’t have a magic cure for tuberculosis, or any
other disease for that matter. What they did was maintain
iron-fisted control over Russian society, which enabled the rulers
to stamp out political dissent, imprison anyone deemed an enemy of
the state, mislead citizens with state-sponsored propaganda, monitor
and regulate all economic activity — and, only incidentally, gave
them the ability to take drastic steps to combat outbreaks of
When a people are free to pursue their own dreams, and when their
individual rights and property are safeguarded by the state, not
threatened by it, a society’s level of affluence and standard of
living will inevitably rise. The public health problems that Zuger
exposed are fundamentally problems caused by a lack of resources —
and it is sixty years of Communist rule that has thwarted the free
market and left the Russian people so far behind their Western
"In the face of desperate medicine shortages, nearly a dozen
private and public international health organizations are now
collaborating with Russian experts to regain control of the
disease," Zuger wrote. Rather than praising the Soviet system, she
may want to explore why those Western-based international health
groups have the resources to lend a hand now, and how the Communist
system so devastated the Russian people’s ability to take care of