Eleven people have died climbing Mount Everest so far this year, amid long lines to reach the peak last week. The mountain is seen here on Monday.
Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images
Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images
Nepal’s tourism board is defending the number of permits it issued to climb Mount Everest for this season in which 11 people have died. And the country says it has no plans to restrict the number of permits issued next year, but rather that it hopes to attract still more tourists and climbers.
“There has been concern about the number of climbers on Mount Everest but it is not because of the traffic jam that there were casualties,” Mohan Krishna Sapkota, secretary at the country’s Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation, told the Associated Press. He instead pointed to weather conditions, insufficient oxygen supplies and equipment.
“In the next season we will work to have double rope in the area below the summit so there is better management of the flow of climbers,” he told the news service.
The image of a crowded Everest linked to the death toll was spurred by a viral photo last week that showed climbers in their neon gear, packed in a tight, unforgiving queue to the highest point on Earth.
A long queue of mountain climbers line a path on Mount Everest on May 22. Nepal’s tourist board says weather conditions and other factors, not crowds, were to blame for eight deaths on the peak in two days last week.
“You essentially have something that looks like people are waiting in line for concert tickets to a sold-out show, only instead of trying to get in to see their favorite artist, they’re trying to reach the top of the world and are running into traffic,” Outside magazine editor at large Grayson Schaffer told NPR’s Weekend Edition.
It’s a traffic jam that can turn fatal. “The danger there is that, at that altitude, the body just can’t survive,” Schaffer said. “They’re breathing bottled oxygen. And when that oxygen runs out because you’re waiting in line, you are at much higher risk for developing high-altitude edemas and altitude sickness — and dying of those illnesses while you’re still trying to reach the summit.”
Everest’s very highest reaches are known as the death zone. And once a climber reaches it, all bets are off.
“Once you get above about 25,000 feet, your body just can’t metabolize the oxygen,” said Schaffer, who has been to Everest but not the death zone. “Your muscles start to break down. You start to have fluid that builds up around your lungs and your brain. Your brain starts to swell. You start to lose cognition. Your decision making starts to become slow. And you start to make bad decisions.”
And that breakdown in cognition is happening to people who have often flown hundreds or thousands of miles and paid significant sums of money to achieve their dream of reaching the top.
“The reason that people try to climb Mount Everest is because it grabs a hold of them and they feel like they just have to make the summit,” Schaffer said. “And so you’ll have some people in distress and not necessarily getting help from the people who are around them. It’s this kind of bizarre thing to be surrounded by hundreds of people, and yet totally alone at the top of the world.”
Nepal’s government doesn’t put a specific limit on permits. This year 381 people were permitted to climb – a number the AP says is the highest ever. Foreign climbers must pay a fee of $11,000 for a spring summit of Everest, and provide a doctor’s note attesting to their fitness.
A few reasons made last week on Everest such a crowded one, in which eight people died in two days. One factor is that China has limited the permits for the Tibetan side of the mountain, driving more people to the Nepalese side.
Another factor is weather. Alan Arnette, a four-time Everest climber, told CNN that bad weather left just five days ideal for reaching the summit. “So you have 800 people trying to squeeze through a very small window,” he said.
Hence the traffic. “There were more people on Everest than there should be,” Kul Bahadur Gurung, general secretary of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, a group comprising all expedition operators in Nepal, told the AP.
“Everest unfairly trashed via viral image of ‘traffic jam’ on May 22 2019,” he wrote. “Below are REAL photos of my climb to Summit on May 15. Devoid of jams & I spent an HOUR at summit. With only a 3-4 day weather window & ~300 Everest Summiteer annually, jams will exist. Spread the truth!”
— Karma Tenzing (@karma10zing) May 28, 2019
In a statement Monday, the tourism board expressed condolences to the bereaved family and friends of those who died, and added that it takes the matter seriously and was “disturbed” by the news.
“Nepal recognises the need to work closely with expedition companies and teams to control safety of climber flows in the face of climatic risks and sensitivities,” it said.
— Nepal Tourism Board (@nepaltourismb) May 28, 2019
But it also pushed back on the idea that it was to blame. It said it had limited the number of permits and had issued them under stringent rules.
“As is known, climbing Everest is a hardcore adventure activity, a daunting experience even for the most trained and professional climbers,” it said in the statement. And the tourist board said it had a request for the travel industry, the media, and potential future climbers: “be aware of all the risk factors included in climbing peaks above 8,000 m. Intense training, precautions and attention to every minor detail, are of extreme importance for climbing the Himalayan peaks.”
In other words: no one ever said climbing Everest was safe.
This year has been the deadliest on Everest since 2015. An avalanche in 2014 killed of 16 Sherpas. And the mountain’s most famous tragedy happened in 1996, when eight climbers died in one day, a harrowing event recounted by Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air.
Since then, little has changed, Schaffer says – except “it’s gotten exponentially worse.”
“In that incident, there was actually a storm that came. And that’s why you had eight people die in that tragedy. Now what we’re seeing and what we will probably see every year forward is eight to 10 people dying just in a routine manner, just because of the sheer number of people trying to fit onto the route.”
Family members of inmates wait and pray in front of the Puraquequara prison in the city of Manaus, the capital of northern Brazil’s Amazonas state, on Monday. Dozens of inmates were killed in four jails in northern Brazil on Sunday and Monday, authorities said, in the latest wave of violence to rock the country’s severely overpopulated and dangerous prison system.
Sandro Pereira/AFP/Getty Images
Sandro Pereira/AFP/Getty Images
Robert Muggah is the co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think and do tank that focuses on security and justice across Latin America, Africa and Asia. He is also co-founder of the SecDev Group, a digital consultancy working in the Middle East, Eurasia and South Asia. He advises governments and business and civil society groups in Latin America and around the world on data-driven and evidence-based security, justice and new technologies.
Once again, Brazil’s hellish prisons are making global headlines. The spotlight this week is on Manaus, the capital of the country’s northern Amazonas state, where violence at different prisons left 55 inmates dead.
On Sunday, the mutilated bodies of 15 prisoners were discovered at one Manaus prison, many of them reportedly showing signs of strangulation and stab wounds from sharpened toothbrushes. Another 40 bodies were recovered on Monday from three other prisons, reported to have signs of asphyxiation.
In virtually any other country, prison massacres on this scale would trigger a national crisis and high-level resignations. In Brazil, it barely registers on most people’s radar.
Many Brazilians are numb to violence, especially when it occurs in prisons. The country has the highest number of recorded homicides in the world, more than 51,000 last year, according to official statistics assembled by a group of independent researchers. Brazil also registers the world’s third-largest prison population, over 704,000 inmates. That figure is almost twice the amount of available cell space — just under 416,000 — which leads to severe overcrowding, inhumane conditions, brutal riots and periodic jailbreaks.
While the latest outbreak of prison violence in Manaus is still under investigation, it is likely connected to disputes between warring drug factions. The fact that the killings occurred simultaneously across multiple prison facilities suggests it involved the settling of scores between gangs. That many of the victims were killed in front of their families during visiting hours only adds to the horror.
Sending a message
These kinds of gruesome acts are performative — they are intended to send a message to rank and file and rival factions. The more violent, the more effective they are at keeping gang members in line.
State authorities speaking to the local media played down the idea that rival drug factions were involved, describing it instead as a violent internal disagreement that spiraled out of control. Amazonas’ secretary for penitentiary administration, Marcus Vinícius de Almeida, added that the state should not be held responsible since prisoners will kill one another if they want to. The mayor of Manaus, Arthur Virgílio Neto, admitted that the state had lost control and that there was open warfare between rival gangs.
Historically, prison violence has broken out over drug gang disputes or frustration over dire prison conditions. The conditions in most of the country’s jails are inhumane, often crowding dozens of people into spaces designed for a handful. A former justice minister once declared that he’d rather die than spend time in a Brazilian jail cell.
A Brazilian police officer stands guard at the entrance of the Anísio Jobim Penitentiary Complex in Manaus, Brazil, Tuesday. Dozens of inmates were killed in different prisons in Amazon state on Sunday and Monday.
Recent history of prison violence
The latest prison massacres share uncanny resemblances with the violent outbreaks that spread across northern Brazil in late 2016 and early 2017. In January 2017, another 56 people were slaughtered in one of the same private prisons, the Anísio Jobim Penitentiary Complex, as this week’s carnage. Over the course of a few weeks in 2017, another 70 inmates were decapitated and stabbed to death in prisons across northern Brazil and dozens more escaped.
The bloodletting in 2017 was widely attributed to disputes between the Família do Norte gang and the Primeiro Comando da Capital, or PCC, who were fighting over control of the prison system and the cocaine trade. This week the regional attorney general, Leda Mara Albuquerque, has already linked the latest outbreak of violence to the Família do Norte.
Brazil’s prison violence is legendary. The homicide rate for inmates is six times higher than the national average. An especially brutal episode occurred in 1992, when 111 inmates were killed during a riot in the Carandiru prison in São Paulo. This incident led to the formation of the PCC, today Brazil’s most powerful drug-trafficking faction.
Other prison massacres have occurred in the northern Rondonia state in 2002, the northeastern states of Maranhão in 2010 and Pernambuco in 2011, Rio de Janeiro in 2014, and across Rondonia and Amazonas in 2016 and 2017. In fact, 24 of Brazil’s 26 states (and district capital) have suffered prison violence in the last decade.
The Amazonas military police’s shock troops claimed to have brought Sunday’s prison violence under control within 45 minutes. Families of several inmates disagree, describing scenes of chaos in the wake of the police intervention. Amazonas’ prison authorities have said they are suspending visiting hours for all prisons across the state and are investigating who was behind the carnage.
For its part, the federal government announced that it will deploy a penitentiary intervention task force made up of some 100 federal penal authorities and federal police to assist. There are already hundreds of troops stationed in Amazonas, many of them deployed there after the prison riots of 2017. Justice Minister Sergio Moro has also approved the transfer of several gang leaders to federal prisons.
Deep reforms needed
These kinds of reactive measures are not enough to stem massacres from recurring. Deeper reforms are required. According to an official investigation of the 2017 prison riots in Amazonas, violence was allowed to escalate because the local penal authorities — some of whom knew about a planned “rebellion” brewing in the prisons — failed to notify the state military police in advance. There were similar red flags this time around.
The prisons also suffer from massive shortages of staff: There are just one judge and two prosecutors responsible for handling as many as 17,000 cases a year and inspecting the state’s eight prisons. Making matters worse, the private company managing Anísio Jobim prison, Umanizzare, was singled out for offering uneven services and charging double the cost per prisoner than the national average.
The reality, however, is that Brazil’s prison problem is tremendously hard to fix. One of the reasons is because they are often literally administered by drug factions who serve as judges, jurors and executioners. Most prisons are divvied up among competing gangs, and the government exerts nominal control.
Much of Brazil is socially conservative and supports a strong prison system and tougher sentences. Recent polls suggest most of the public favors lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16. This partially helps explain the appeal of President Jair Bolsonaro, elected in October 2018 on a tough-on-crime ticket.
The latest Manaus killings are almost guaranteed to inspire retribution inside and outside the prison walls. Amazonas is already one of Brazil’s most violent states. The homicide rate in its capital city is 45 per 100,000 last year, almost twice the national average. As recent history has shown, Brazil’s prison wars often spill onto the street and spread across state borders.
To reform the penitentiary system, Brazil needs to step back from its policy of mass incarceration. Since 2018, just over 8,650 prison spaces were built in the country — but the number of new inmates jumped by more than 17,800 over the same period, according to national news sources.
At a minimum, the government needs to focus on reducing both the stock and flow of inmates. This means drastically reducing the number of pretrial detainees, who currently make up an estimated 36% of the entire caseload. Federal and state-level judges, prosecutors and public defenders need support to resolve outstanding cases. Much greater attention is needed to rehabilitate first-time offenders and keep at-risk adolescents from joining a gang — 70% of Brazilian offenders end up back in jail within five years.
Brazil’s government needs to deliver a comprehensive strategy for public security, and the penal system in particular. Rather than imposing harsher sentences and building new prisons, the authorities need to ensure suspects are provided with a hearing within 24 hours of their arrest and expand the network of public defenders.
But real change must go beyond reforming sentencing procedures and improving prison conditions, though both are necessary. Brazil needs to decriminalize drugs, promote proportional sentencing and offer rehabilitation opportunities for offenders — all of which are dim prospects in a country inured to violence.
Mustafa Hacalaki/Getty Images
A version of this story was originally published in 2018 and has been updated.
They are popular. They are controversial. And now, video games have just become an internationally recognized addiction.
On May 25, the World Health Organization officially voted to adopt the latest edition of its International Classification of Diseases, or ICD, to include an entry on “gaming disorder” as a behavioral addiction.
This is a move that could alarm parents all over the country. According to Pew, 97 percent of teen boys and 83 percent of girls play games on some kind of device.
But in order to be classified as having a disease, being a video game fan isn’t enough. According to WHO, the criteria doesn’t include a certain amount of hours spent playing. Instead, the description is of someone with an inability to stop playing even though it interferes with other areas of one’s life, such as family relationships, school, work, and sleep. And, these problems would typically continue for at least one year.
And although WHO’s voice is powerful, it’s not the last word in the world of science.
“There is a fairly even split in the scientific community about whether ‘tech addiction’ is a real thing,” says Dr. Michael Bishop, who runs Summerland, which he calls “a summer camp for screen overuse” for teens.
“Technology addiction” doesn’t appear in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM-V, published in 2013. That’s the bible of the psychiatric profession in the United States. The closest it comes is something called “Internet Gaming Disorder,” and that is listed as a condition for further study, not an official diagnosis.
This omission is important not only because it shapes therapists’ and doctors’ understanding of their patients but because without an official DSM code, it is harder to bill insurers for treatment of a specific issue.
Dr. Nicholas Kardaras is the author of the 2016 book Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids. There are brain-imaging studies of the effects of screen time, he says. And he also has treated many teens who are so wrapped up in video games that they don’t even get up to use the bathroom.
He says the evidence is clear, but we’re not ready to face it.
“We have, as a society, gone all-in on tech,” he says. “So we don’t want some buzz-killing truth sayers telling us that the emperor has no clothes and that the devices that we’ve all so fallen in love with can be a problem” — especially for kids and their developing brains, he adds.
Addiction may not be an official term in the U.S., at least not yet. But researchers and clinicians like Bishop, who avoid using it, are still concerned about some of the patterns of behavior they see.
“I came to this issue out of a place of deep skepticism: addicted to video games? That can’t be right,” said Dr. Douglas Gentile at Iowa State University, who has been researching the effects of media on children for decades.
But “I’ve been forced by data to accept that it’s a problem,” he told me when I interviewed him for my book The Art of Screen Time. “Addiction to video games and Internet use, defined as ‘serious dysfunction in multiple aspects of your life that achieves clinical significance,’ does seem to exist.”
Measuring problematic use
Gentile’s definition doesn’t address the questions of whether media can cause changes in your brain or create a true physical dependency.
It also doesn’t address the question, raised by some of the clinicians I’ve spoken with, of whether media overuse is best thought of as a symptom of something else, such as depression, anxiety or ADHD. Gentile’s definition simply asks whether someone’s relationship to media is causing problems to the extent that the person would benefit from getting some help.
Gentile was one of the co-authors of a study published in November that tried to shed more light on that question. The study has the subtitle “A Parent Report Measure of Screen Media ‘Addiction’ in Children.” Note that the term addiction is in quotes here. In the study, researchers asked parents of school-age children to complete a questionnaire based on the criteria for “Internet Gaming Disorder.”
For example, it asked: Is their preferred media activity the only thing that puts them in a good mood? Are they angry or otherwise unhappy when forced to unplug? Is their use increasing over time? Do they sneak around to use screens? Does it interfere with family activities, friendships or school?
The experts I’ve talked to say the question of whether an adult, or a child, has a problem with technology can’t be answered simply by measuring screen time. What matters most, this study suggests, is your relationship to it, and that requires looking at the full context of life.
Sarah Domoff, the lead author on that study, runs the Problematic Media Assessment and Treatment clinic at the Center for Children, Families, and Communities at Central Michigan University. She works with young people directly, and also trains pediatricians to spot problems with screens and to offer help to families. She says that problems with video games often are found in children who also have a diagnosis such as ADHD or autism spectrum, while young people who have problems with social media are more likely to have a diagnosis such as depression or anxiety.
Rather than go “cold turkey” on technology, she focuses on helping families with “harm reduction” such as keeping devices out of the bedroom and making sure that young people go to school, spend time with friends and play outdoors. Addiction, she says, may be “in the single digits” –that is, less than 10 percent of all those who use media–but we need more research to know for sure.
Though tech addiction isn’t officially recognized yet in the United States, there are in-patient treatment facilities for teens that try to address the problem.
For my book, I interviewed a teenage boy who attended a wilderness therapy program in Utah called Outback.
“I started playing [video games] when I was around 9 years old,” said Griffin, whose last name I didn’t use to protect his privacy. He chose email over a phone interview. “I played because I found it fun, but after a while I played mostly because I preferred it over socializing and confronting my problems.”
After he spent weeks hiking through the wilderness, his mother saw a lot of improvement in his demeanor and focus. However, Griffin came home to a reality where he still needed a laptop for high school and still used a smartphone to connect with friends.
Bishop, who runs therapeutic Summerland camps in California and North Carolina, says the teens who come to him fall into two broad categories. There are the ones, overwhelmingly boys, who spend so much time playing video games that, in his words, they “fall behind in their social skills.” Often they are battling depression or anxiety, or they may be on the autism spectrum.
Then there is a group of mostly girls who misuse and overuse social media. They may be obsessed with taking selfies — Bishop calls them “selfists” — or they may have sent inappropriate pictures of themselves or bullied others online.
Regardless of the problem, “We feel the issue is best conceptualized as a ‘habit’ over an ‘addiction,’ ” Bishop says. “When teens think about their behavior as a habit, they are more empowered to change.”
Labeling someone an addict, essentially saying he or she has a chronic disease, is a powerful move. And it may be especially dangerous for teens, who are in the process of forming their identities, says Maia Szalavitz.
Szalavitz is an addiction expert and the author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way Of Understanding Addiction. Based on her experience with drug and alcohol addiction, she thinks grouping kids together who have problems with screens can be counterproductive. Young people with milder problems may learn from their more “deviant peers,” she says. For that reason, she would encourage families to start with individual or family counseling.
Different habits demand different approaches to treatment. People who have problematic relationships with alcohol, drugs or gambling can choose abstinence, though it’s far from easy. Those who are binge eaters, however, cannot. They must rebuild their relationships with food while continuing to eat every day.
In today’s world, technology may be more like food than it is like alcohol. Video games or social media may be avoidable, but most students need to use computers for school assignments, build tech skills for the workplace, and learn to combat distraction and procrastination as part of growing up.
The word “addiction” may currently be attracting controversy, but you don’t need a doctor’s official pronouncement to work on putting the devices down more often — or to encourage your kids to do so as well.