Stuck in a world,

Far away from my dad and mom.

I just have to go because I’m the only son,

Alone to live and be reborn.

 

I packed my bags for the trip ahead,

Walked round on last time round, every corner of my bed,

Received kisses at my back palm and on my forehead,

It rekindled every feeling that where dead,

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you`ve been there
you`ve been here
you`ve seen it all
now it seems you cant give it your all, less you fall

you`ve done what everybody else does
and yet everything still looks tough
it seems there`s so much to be done
cos all that keeps you strong is gone

it seems there`s so much to be given
and now you need a voice to listen
it`s alright to cry
but don’t stop to try

you live life like you`re giving up
go ahead and live it up
the sun will shine again
and all the pains will turn to gain

DONT CRY AGAIN
DONT GIVE UP NOW

Many religious faiths propose different versions of heaven as a location: There are walled gardens with streams, flowers, pleasing scents, pretty angels, rapturous music or delicious accessible food.

But what about us – the once-mortal – who will go on to inhabit the heavenly real estate? What form will our bodies take? Not all religions posit bodily resurrection. But those that do tend to depict them as young.

As the author of prize-winning books on age and culture, I tend to notice unseen forms of ageism.

I wonder: Is the cult of youth what we really want trailing us into the afterlife?

The righteous are young

According to Christian orthodoxy, if you’re worthy of being raised from the dead, you’ll be resurrected in the flesh, not merely as spirit, with a body restored like that of Christ, who died at 33.

In heaven there will be no whip marks, no scars from thorns, no bodily wounds. If eaten by cannibals or bereft of limbs from battle – some medieval people worried about wholeness in such conditions – people would regain their missing parts. The body would be perfected, as the Apostle Matthew promised in the New Testament when he wrote, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear.”

In Islam, in the traditional Hadiths – the commentaries that succeeded the Quran – the righteous are also youthful, and apparently male. “The people of Paradise will enter Paradise hairless (in their body), beardless, white colored, curly haired, with their eyes anointed with kohl, aged thirty-three years,” according to Abu Harayra, one of Mohammed’s companions.

The afterlife isn’t all based on sacred text. Folklore, cultural traditions and audience demand also shape its images.

Western art has, over the centuries, located the promise of posthumous perfection in bodies that are youthful. British historian Roy Porter writes that the art of the Renaissance (in which bodies were first portrayed with muscles and motion) showed “rosy-fleshed and even lithe bodies rising elegantly from the earth, in an almost balletic movement.” Think of the muscular naked bodies in Luca Signorelli’s “Resurrection and the Crowning of the Blessed” in Orvieto cathedral.

A section of Luca Signorelli’s fresco ‘Resurrection of the Flesh.’ Cappella di San Brizio

Throughout history, some people died in their 90s, as they do now. But the luck of having lived a long life on Earth, with its wisdom and experience symbolically etched on the face and signaled by the august whiteness of hair, apparently did not cross over onto the other side.

In such visions of heaven, there would be no signs of our ordinary mortal passage. No wrinkles. No disability. No old age. “Perfected” means never having grown up even into the middle years.

Ageist and ableist, these traditions promote cults of youth. The New Testament, the Quran, the Italian Renaissance, the Romantic era – all sing the same decline-oriented, exclusionary song.

On our screens, forever young

Jump to the myths of the modern world, and the aftercare of the fit juvenile body remains precious. In vampire stories, for example, the undead bloodsuckers appear young and attractive. When their true age is revealed, it turns out that they’re often thousands of years old.

“Who wants to see old ghosts?” critic Martha Smilgis wrote in a 1991 Time feature about a recent spate of films that featured young, lithe actors populating the afterlife. “Hollywood wants to remain forever young,” she continued, “and what better way than to extend yourself into another life?”

In the award-winning “Black Mirror” episode “San Junipero,” the fantasy of forever young becomes a reality: The dead can upload themselves into a simulation to live out their afterlives as their younger selves.

In other television shows about the afterlife, one way to avoid old ghosts is to simply have the characters all die young. And so in series like “Dead Like Me” and “Forever,” freak accidents on Earth ensure the resurrected are fit and attractive.

The best version of you

Because we now live in an age of longer, healthier lifespans – and because I’m in my 70s – I’m nonplussed by seeing the cult of youth persist.

People I know in later life are healthy. Some are handsome. Unlike the great unwashed of previous epochs, old people too now bathe. We brush our teeth, so we don’t lose them before 40. Syphilis, in the rare event that we contracted it, can be cured. If we have partners, we enjoy sex.

I can understand idealizing youth in this life, but only by considering the ageism that people endure in the workplace. Sure, a midlife job seeker, desperately unemployed, tweaks his date of birth on his resume because he is considered “too old” at too young an age. A woman dyes her hair and gets a little Botox for the same reason.

But in heaven too, where capitalism is gratefully left behind? Surely part of the Rapture is not having to depend on a boss and a paycheck. You can’t be fired, downsized or made redundant. If heaven means nothing else, it works like a good labor union, assuring blessed tenure.

So might we disrupt the ancient adolescent fantasies that, translated to our contemporary era, seem so anachronistic? I am no longer a teenager. I have put away on Earth – as it should be in heaven – the peer pressures, the showy embarrassing décolletage, shaving my legs, the comical hair styles and the beach-blanket boozy fantasies of the hourglass figure.

My earlier face would look weird to me were it suddenly to appear tomorrow over the bathroom sink. If heaven were furnished with mirrors – an unlikely scenario – I am certain I would want to behold the face I have now. Whatever its earthly faults in the eyes of Hollywood plastic surgeons and the tiresome fashion magazines, it has the virtue of familiarity.

Heaven is supposed to be the entrance to a fuller, or better, future life – what mortals fail to obtain in the real world. Does that now mean Club Med for young people? Fort Lauderdale at spring break? With more clothing? Or perhaps less?

William Blake’s ‘The Meeting of the Family in Heaven’ (1805). Wikimedia Commons

Mormons are promised that they will spend eternity with their kin. For many people now, paradise is, more than anything, a place where we will meet loved ones. Often a beloved parent. I would have no interest in a heaven in which my mother appeared to be 33, when I scarcely knew her as a six-year-old. Nor would I want her to look six decades younger than I do, were I to arrive in my 90s.

She died at 96, and I want her to have the face I loved in her very old age. There she would be, still smiling at me benignly, as she does in a photograph I see every day of my aging-into-old-age life.

Heaven can keep the pleasant streams, the divine choirs and the luscious apricots. It can heal us of pain. We can be loved for who we are. If all that, who needs to be younger as well? I believe our dreams of the afterlife need to challenge the idée fixe that only the appearance of youth is valuable.

Some of us with longer lives don’t think it perfection to have the signs of who we are now, erased for eternity. We have a finer dream of human solidarity.

 

Biodiversity – the variation in all living organisms – is one of Africa’s richest assets. As a result, its genetic material is coveted by scientists, biotechnology companies and research institutes globally. For decades, there has been a flow of data and biosamples from the African continent to the global north. This has often been in the absence of legitimate participant consent, community engagement or data or material transfer agreements.

Biopiracy – the act of directly or indirectly taking undue advantage of research participants and communities in global health research – has a long and contentious history in Africa. A recent case occurred during the West African Ebola outbreak between 2014 and 2016 when thousands of biological specimens left the continent without consent. Very often there is minimal benefit sharing.

The issue has been in the news again in South Africa. Accusations have been levelled against the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK for allegedly attempting to commercialise data obtained from various African universities. This has reignited questions around models of consent in research, donor rights, biopiracy and genomic sovereignty.

The latest revelations show that legislation as well as academic research governance bodies have failed to adequately safeguard the rights of vulnerable participants in genomics research.

One missing piece of the puzzle is the limited empirical data on the views of people whose biosamples are taken in the name of research. This would include issues of ownership, future use, export, benefit-sharing and commercialisation.

In 2011 and 2012 we surveyed participants to better understand their views. We recruited participants who had experience with research, the consent process and use of biological samples. They were engaged in studies at academic research units attached to public hospitals and private research centres.

Our findings remain relevant today as many of the issues raised by the people we spoke to have still not been addressed.

The issue of consent

Our study was conducted over a 10 month period from September 2011 to June 2012. We sampled 200 participants in the Western Cape and Gauteng provinces in South Africa. Participants who had already consented to use of their blood for research were asked several questions including the following: how they felt about their samples being stored for future use and about them being sent abroad to foreign countries, as well as the possibility of future commercialisation.

Most participants were supportive of research. But many expressed concerns about export of their blood samples and data out of South Africa.

For their part, researchers viewed the biosamples as donations. But participants believed they had ownership rights and were keen on benefit sharing. Almost half of the participants were not in favour of broad consent delegated to a research ethics committee. Their preference was to be contacted again for consent in the future.

The legitimacy of using broad consent models for genomic research and biobanking occupies a contested space among bioethicists and researchers globally. Broad consent allows researchers to use biosamples and data indefinitely for future research.

Usually, with broad consent, future research must be approved by a Research Ethics Committee (a diverse group of experts from different research, medical, legal and ethics disciplines) and it is then not necessary to contact donors and ask for their permission to conduct research with their samples or data again.

But this type of consent is particularly contentious in resource depleted countries. This is because research participants often don’t understand the complex scientific jargon used in consent documents or processes, especially where use of their samples or data in the future is concerned. This includes commercialisation.

Strong privacy protection legislation and other similar laws require specific consent. This means that individual participants need to consent to use of their data in a specific project or disease category. This makes it challenging to understand how broad consent (delegated to a research ethics committee) for unspecified future use can be legally obtained in research.

This is particularly concerning where future commercialisation may be included in broad consent models without being explicitly discussed with participants. The language used to explain commercialisation is often vague and not fully comprehensible by vulnerable populations.

South Africa also has protocols in place. For example, clear, explicit, voluntary informed consent is required for all use of data and samples belonging to research participants. If data or samples are to be transferred to other researchers in South Africa or abroad, participants ought to be aware of this and can then consent or decline. However, this is not always what happens.

In addition, if data is to be shared with another institution, a data transfer agreement or material transfer agreement must be signed prior to the transfer. This too does not always happen.

Reform is needed

South Africa needs to up its game and reform governance around research ethics. This is particularly necessary in the context of international collaborative research. Good governance needs to incorporate transparency, fairness and honesty.

Research ethics committees and researchers need to ensure that data transfer agreements or material transfer agreements are in place prior to sharing of samples or data.

More importantly, community representatives on research ethics committees should be empowered to review consent documents to establish if appropriate language is used to explain commercialisation and data or sample sharing.

tiered consent model gives participants choice in terms of how their data or samples could be used in the future. This happens when participants choose what they agree to in the consent document. It also allows for specific choices to be voiced on benefit sharing for participants or their respective communities.

In addition, authentic community engagement with co-creation of knowledge production and benefit sharing is essential to ensure equity in global research.

 

Plastic debris is everywhere and has grabbed the attention of environmental policy makers and regulators. When this plastic breaks up into smaller particles – less than 5mm in size – they are called microplastics. In some cases, they can only be seen under a microscope.

There are two types of microplastics: primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are manufactured to be 5mm or less in size. Examples include microbeads used in cosmetics and household products and resin pellets used in abrasive blasting.

Secondary microplastics are formed from the breakdown of larger plastic materials due to photochemical, mechanical and biological processes in the environment.

Sources of microplastics in rivers and oceans include littering, poor waste management, waste water treatment plants, storm water overflow, industrial effluents and even organic solids obtained from sewage treatment processes.

The presence of small plastic fragments in the marine environment was first highlighted in the 1970s. But with renewed interest over the past decade, microplastics are now considered a major emerging contaminant.

Microplastics pick up and transport heavy metals and organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These pollutants can be toxic. They can be carcinogenic – that is, they have the potential to cause cancer – and they can also be mutagenic – they can lead to changes in the genetic makeup of organisms.

Microplastics also release plastic additives into the marine environment. These can contaminate soil, air, water and food. They can damage creatures that live in the sea by blocking their digestive tracts, changing their feeding patterns, decreasing their immune response and altering reproductive activities. They can also be transferred up the food chain to humans when they’re ingested by marine organisms.

Microplastics menace

Microplastics are simply everywhere. Studies have reported their presence in the guts of birds, fishes and marine mammals. They have also been reported  in remote areas of the Alps and the Arctic.

Most studies on microplastics have been conducted outside Africa. Currently, there is little or no data on microplastics occurrence in sub-Saharan Africa.

We examined surface sediments from four beaches in Lagos for microplastics. This was the first attempt to investigate microplastic levels in the Nigerian coastal environment.

We found microplastics in all sediment samples collected from the beaches. We found that plastic fragments dominated all the samples we examined. This was followed by pellets and then fibres. The high number of fragments suggests the breakdown of larger plastic items from littering and poor waste management as the most significant source of microplastics in the beaches.

Plastic polymers confirmed were polypropylene, polyethylene and polystyrene. These polymers are used, among other things, to produce rigid food service containers (Styrofoam containers), disposable cups, bottles, as well as plastic wrappings and bags. This study also confirms the ubiquitous nature of microplastics in the Atlantic as reported in studies from different regions and locations.

Going forward

Other countries are already taking action to minimise microplastic pollution. About 127 have implemented policies to regulate plastic production and usage. Nigeria should not be an exception.

The country needs to adopt a series of policies to manage plastics.

The Nigerian government – at all levels – should encourage citizens and organisations to embrace the “new plastics economy” where plastic never becomes waste. Plastic materials with no after-use value – single-use plastics – such as Styrofoam plates and the ubiquitous water sachets should be gradually phased out.

Individuals can also take action by reducing their plastic footprint.

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