Leprosy is primarily a disease of the nervous system, which has the effect that patients no longer feel pain. Therefore, they do not notice when they have open wounds on their limbs, but continue to use them, until they suffer greater and greater damage. Eventually they lose their limbs. The feeling of pain is an essential feedback mechanism that persuades us to give our body time to heal, and helps keep us alive.
Similarly, if in a society the channels for people to inform the government of their suffering are blocked by censorship, or if the government does not care about people’s fate, because it does not face elections, there is no limit to how much people may suffer. Dictatorship is a disease of society similar to leprosy in the human body.
It is no coincidence that some of the worst cases of industrial pollution were found in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, because the press had been censored and could not report about cases of pollution, and criticism of the government was severely punished. Dictatorships are notorious for all kinds of abuses of power including imprisonment, torture, execution of dissidents, corruption, lack of freedom of movement, even hunger.
Amartya Sen has found that famines do not occur in democracies because a government that would let some of its people starve to death would not be reelected. A free press that reports without fear or favor about cases of abuse of power and democratic institutions that allow people to replace government officials who abuse their positions, serve a function in society analogous to that of the immune system in the human body, where white blood cells constantly search for germs of disease and eliminate them before they can multiply and spread throughout the body.
If the immune system is weakened, as in AIDS patients, they suffer from a host of diseases without defense against them and eventually die. If the immune system stops functioning altogether, at the time of death, the body is consumed by rapidly multiplying microbes and rots.
The immune system is essential to keep us alive, and democratic institutions, including a free press, are necessary to keep a society healthy and at peace.
Dietrich Fischer (1941-2015) from Münsingen, Switzerland, got a Licentiate in Mathematics from the University of Bern 1968 and his Ph.D. in Computer Science from New York University 1976. 1986-88 he was a MacArthur Fellow in International Peace and Security at Princeton University. He has taught mathematics, computer science, economics and peace studies at various universities and been a consultant to the United Nations. He was co-founder, with Johan Galtung, of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment in 1993.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 3 Sep 2018.