Mar 28, 2007

As Fuel Prices Soar, A Country Unravels

The impact of today's energy crunch on the poor is plain in rich nations such as America: Expensive gasoline and soaring heating bills make a hard life harder. In impoverished countries such as Guinea, where per capita income is just $370 a year and surging gasoline prices have helped spark bloody riots, the energy shock has become a matter of life and death. The energy shock's impact on the world's poor is uneven. An estimated 1.6 billion people, most of them rural dwellers, lack access to electricity and 2.4 billion still cook over fires of wood, charcoal or dung.

The new fuel shortages make life tough at Donka Hospital, where Mr. Diallo, the aspiring doctor, just started making his rounds as a student intern. The hospital has priority on the city's electricity grid, but blackouts are frequent. Patients bring their own flashlights. The main backup generator burns through 40 liters of fuel an hour, at a cost of about $40 an hour at current rates. So, that generator sits idle.

Dr. Baldé and his team of 14 doctors at the infant-care ward cope as they can. If a blackout lasts longer than an hour or so, temperatures inside the incubators start to fall. Nurses pick babies out and bury them in blankets on their mothers' warm bellies.

"There were too many stoppages in his therapy" because of the blackouts, Dr. Joumah says, wincing and shaking his head. The baby died after about a week. He had other complications, but Dr. Joumah blames the power cuts. "It happens all the time," he says.

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