Saturday, 1 November 2014

Ebola Panic, Neoliberal Pandemic

Since the Ebola disease was first detected in West Africa in March, it has claimed in excess of 4,800 lives (and rising), among them over 120 frontline medical staff tending to the ill. Double that number are infected. Thousands of children have been orphaned.

The virus is communicated through direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood, saliva and possibly sweat; and excreta (faeces and vomit), which accounts for its rapid growth and speedy spread over the past few months. However, it is not as contagious as say the common flu (influenza) that is transmitted through the air.
A disease without a proven cure: the Ebola death rate can be a staggering 50 percent. The fear of infection has disrupted farming and daily-waged labour activities in affected countries, because of public fears of its transmission in the absence of good quality healthcare.

Usually the lives and sufferings of the poor in countries peripheral within the global economy are of little consequence in the capitalist core.

But in the epoch of increased mobility of persons across continents, a virus has no respect for race or colour or nationality; crossing international borders with its human carriers. Around 200 Sri Lankans are migrant workers in Liberia, and perhaps smaller numbers in Sierra Leone.

Panic in Western countries set in, particularly with no vaccine for its treatment currently licensed, when two US and Spanish nationals (and health workers) were diagnosed with the virus on return to their home countries.

Adding to the hysteria, US lawmakers have demanded a ban on all travel between that country and the entire West African region.
Western Military

In another illustration of the new imperialism of ‘humanitarian intervention’, a number of voices have been raised for western troops to be deployed in the affected countries.

The international charity Oxfam, for example, has argued that the troops are needed for logistical support including to fly in supplies and aid workers, and to build treatment centres. Why these necessary roles are beyond the capacity or competence of African civilians or technical units of African militaries is unstated.

French troops are already on the ground in its former colony of Guinea; there are 750 British troops in its previous colony of Sierra Leone; and the US plans to have 4000 military personnel in its one-time protectorate of Liberia within weeks.

The Ebola crisis is an opportunity for the US to create the permanent security hub in West Africa it has desired. President Barack Obama pronounced Ebola to be a “global security threat”. Significantly, the US government has committed US$1 billion to support its military deployment, in comparison to US$350 million for humanitarian assistance.

While Oxfam has urged that Western troops should be under “civilian administration”, it is implausible that they will be under the command and control of African governments.

On the other hand, it is possible that their mission will expand to include Western security (Islamist militancy and narcotics trafficking) and economic agendas (including land-grabs for agro-exports, mineral extraction including oil and natural gas, and markets for western goods and services).

China has committed 200 medical personnel and pledged US$35 million in medical aid in a region where it has major commercial interests and over 10,000 nationals.

Cuba, on the other hand, has demonstrated its internationalism in practice by airlifting 165 medical personnel to the region, soon to be followed by 300 more, and with no economic or strategic interests in the region.

No Vaccine

Why is there no vaccine for a disease known for almost 40 years?

Simple. There was no commercial value in producing one. It has only killed black people too poor to afford it by themselves. Poor people living in poor countries where the public healthcare, education and welfare system has been gutted by World Bank and International Monetary Fund ‘structural adjustment’ policies that slash social spending.

More money has been spent researching the conversion of the Ebola virus into a biological weapon than on developing drugs for its treatment.

Now, western governments are pledging funds to stem the spread of the disease, having poached scientists, doctors, nurses and technicians from West Africa to work for more money and in better conditions in western hospitals.

Neoliberal Pandemic

Ebola is as dangerous as it is because the people infected by it are poor, and live in poor countries.

If the victims were better nourished, better educated, with good water and sanitation, and access to primary healthcare and medicine, then the virus would have been easily managed.

Instead, they live in countries ruined by decades of neoliberal economic policies (interlinked with conflicts and ecological damage), and the consequences of this are clear to see in deaths that are preventable in the 21st century.

Meanwhile, the human toll from Sub-Saharan Africa’s three main diseases – malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS – will be in the hundreds of thousands this year alone; and with no hope of their eradication, in the near future.


For Publication in the November 2014 issue of Vame Handa