It was a rainy day and the SPCA thrift store looked like a good refuge. Browsing over old treasures and leafing through books; buying, when it happens, it's good for both parties. In today's self-centered world, it is important to try and make it right for all around us.
That day I got two books for the boys: one by Brian Jacques and one by Jane Goodall. Three dollars later I was ready to continue my rain walk. But there it was, on the counter, a glass lizard. No bigger than my index finger, if you didn't count its broken tail. I knew the boys would think it special.
They did. We called him Humphrey and he lived on the kitchen windowsill for a long time. We would occasionally wonder where it came from; suppositions like that make for a good game . . .
It's nice when toys have the right story. We have a slinky Kermit I got from a garage sale once. He has a good story of compassion and a reminder to never judge in those green velvet-wrapped slinks.
A few weeks ago in a toy store I noticed a bunch of fluffy green things shaped like small croissants with eyes. The label indicated that each was a malaria bug. Intrigued? I was too. A stuffed toy, all plushy and cuddly, but representing something terrible.
The green bugs were in cahoots with some others: Ebola, black fever, the flu; also some fluffy representations of cells: muscle, blood, reproductive and some neurons too. I can understand the cheeky side of stuffies that depict cells in the body or non-killers such as cold bugs or fleas or louse. But I choke on the ones like Ebola, typhoid or malaria.
According to the World Health Organization, there were approximately 660,000 deaths caused by malaria in 2010, mostly children. There are four types of malaria bugs, and Plasmodium falciparum(the fluffy green thing) is the most deadly.
When my partner was in West Africa working for an NGO he contracted malaria twice during the six months he was there. The first time was the worst. Like a very bad case of flu, he said, but much worse. The sudden chills and dizziness were scary. He saw children suffering from it too, and found out that many do not win the battle.
Can we make peace with the image of a child on this side of the world choosing to cuddle with malaria as she goes to bed, versus a child on the other side lying in bed with the same bug, but the live and often deadly one? The child on this side wakes up just as bouncy and happy the next day, while the other onewell, the other one might not. Unfair? To say the least.
It is not out of callousness that I point to such a striking difference; I rather think that the idea of such a toy takes serious matters in jest and is crossing a line that should not be crossed.
A friend argued that perhaps these toys are meant as educational tools. The manufacturer claims the same. The website lists various categories of bugs: Tropical, Exotics, Calamities, Alimentaries, Maladies, Venereals (!) and many others. And cells.
One that made me shudder, besides the malaria bugs I had already seen in the store, was a grey cancer cell (malignant neoplasm) that could be turned inside out and made into a white, non-cancerous version. To depict healing.
Grey to white A fluffy figure of speech one could say. A toy it may be, but what about those unfortunate patients whose tumors do not respond to treatment? Can we rely on cancer cell stuffie to explain that to a child or any other member of the patient's family? It is by far a most sensitive matter, a toy may not be the right tool to address it.
If the stuffies and other vinyl-based toys made by the same company are most likely made with non-renewable resources and spewing some extra pollutants, some cancer-causing, during the manufacturing process, then the message carried by the very cancer cell toy is defeated; the cancer-causing pollutants may reach people before the stuffie does its magic, ironically so. There is no magic, really. Or educational value associated with most bugs.
The short website intro for the malaria bug reads: "The tropics have coconuts, soft beaches, clear water, shiny fish, colorful birds, steel drums, umbrella drinks. And Malaria."
Donating a part of the proceeds or, gasp!, all, at least the ones from ill-famed bugs to eradicate the real ones would perhaps make it better? Debatable.
Where do we draw the line? How far do we push the jokes? We have it good here, we can afford to be cheeky with matters that end in death in other parts of the world. But is it right?
Will such a thing, making light in a joking way, of serious issues help us and our children understand the needs of others and the necessity of helping, or will it numb them and us? Will they become more aware of maintaining health so they will be at risk for cancer? I doubt it but I welcome a different opinion if you think otherwise.
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Daniela Ginta is a mother, scientist, writer and blogger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through her blog at www.thinkofclouds.com.