Ebola and what it reveals about our world (AWTWNS 25 May 2015)

This AWTWNS news packet for the week of 25 May 2015 contains one article. It may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as it is credited.

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Ebola and what it reveals about our world

25 May 2015. A World to Win News Service. Last year we constantly heard about the spread of Ebola, how deadly it was and how thousands were killed by this virus. As the rate of its spread decreased and the disease was contained in Europe and the U.S., Ebola has almost disappeared from the media. But this deadly virus is still killing people in West Africa, with a spike of 35 new cases a week in Guinea and Sierra Leone during May 2015.

A brief history of Ebola
Ebola was first discovered in 1976 in the Nzara region of Sudan and Yam Buko, a village on the banks of the Ebola river in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The disease was generally confined to people living in tropical forests in central and western Africa. It is extremely deadly, especially given the current circumstances in this region. In several of the 24 outbreaks over the last four decades, nearly 90 percent of those infected with this disease died. In 2000, in Uganda, half of the 425 people infected with Ebola died. In the recent epidemic in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, that rate has been around 70 percent. More than 11,000 deaths from Ebola have been recorded since March 2014, according to the WHO (World Health Organisation).

Ebola is one of a number of animal diseases that at some point begin to affect humans. Changes in the natural environment, in the way people live and the interaction between the two, as well as inevitable virus mutations, are major factors in the appearance of new diseases and how they become disastrous. For example, today’s dangerous new variants of bird flu and swine flu emerged and spread to people under specific conditions of how these animals are raised and sold, along with other factors.

It is believed that fruit bats are the natural “reservoir” of the Ebola virus – that is, they can carry it without getting sick themselves. It is transmitted by body fluids. Human beings can be infected either by direct contact with bats or by eating animals that have swallowed fruit contaminated by bats – or by contact with fluids from other humans, living or dead. What most of the world’s cultures consider a decent burial for a loved one can be a death sentence for the family of an Ebola victim or others who handle the corpse. Until recently it was thought that the disease mainly broke out among people who ate so-called “bush” meat, such as chimpanzees and other jungle animals. Outbreaks ended quickly because they affected isolated populations where everyone soon died or developed an immunity. Western authorities considered it more a medical curiosity than a danger to their interests. The latest epidemic is believed to have started when a child was infected while playing inside a hollow tree trunk used by bats. This child, his parents and most of his relatives died.

Why West Africa?

It is lopsided and destructive development under the imperialist system and its global market that is pushing people in West Africa to seek their livelihoods deeper and deeper in shrinking forests. Poverty is one reason why people living on the periphery of these tropical forests eat bush meat, an important source of protein. In fact poverty and other effects of the world system are important elements making people vulnerable to this deadly virus.

The peoples of Central and West Africa are among the poorest on the planet. Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia – the focal point of the latest Ebola outbreak – are ranked 161, 176 and 181 respectively on the poverty scale. In Sierra Leone, 80 percent of the people do not have access to basic sanitation and clean drinking water. With an income often no more than $1.50 a day, they can’t afford electricity or to purchase much food other than what they grow.

The distribution of healthcare, like any other basic necessity, is extremely lopsided in today’s world. When it comes to health care personnel, scientific research, medication, medical facilities, etc., people in countries like Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia inhabit a different universe than people in the imperialist home countries, even though they live in the same world and under the same global economic system. Average healthcare spending per person in Sierra Leon is $96 per year, Liberia $65 and in the U.S. $8,895. These figures do not fully reflect the magnitude of the disparity, since the differences between living standards and life expectancies are also determined by food intake, personal hygiene and other factors.

But the problem is not that these countries lack resources. It is just the opposite: their resources bring them misery. For four hundred years Europeans considered the people themselves a natural resource to be looted. This region was the main exit point for an uncountable number of slaves taken to the Americas by Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British and other traders who purchased people kidnapped throughout West Africa, from the coast deep into the interior. Europeans did not invent the practice of slavery in the region, but they turned it into a commerce in human beings on a mass scale never before seen in human history. The devastating effects of that are felt in Africa today, not to mention among the descendants of the slaves themselves.

Further, the wealth produced by the slave trade and the slaves themselves is one of the main reasons why Europe and North America were able to develop into the powers they are today, in a world divided into imperialist countries and the countries they dominate economically, politically and very often militarily. Centuries of colonialism and neo-colonialism under the British (Sierra Leone), French (Guinea) and the U.S. (Liberia) shaped these countries and societies.

The potential agricultural wealth of these countries has been squandered by focusing resources in growing coffee for the international market while subsistence agriculture provides less and less for people to eat. Logging – again driven by the international market – makes the land unable to support animals and people, and has been a factor in the scourge of new diseases. That market’s hunger for diamonds, gold and minerals such as bauxite (from which aluminium is made) and coltan (essential for manufacturing mobile phones) fuelled the civil wars that ravaged Sierra Leone and Liberia until a decade ago. Guinea, with no such wars and massive mineral exports, is no better off.

Health care facilities in these countries have been deteriorating, not getting better. “Structural adjustment” policies imposed by the IMF and World Bank have resulted in cutbacks and deterioration in health care systems throughout much of Africa, including relatively better off Western African countries like Ghana and Ivory Coast. There have been similar cutbacks in funding for the WHO’s work in Africa. According to a report by Doctors without Borders, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia have almost no medical facilities to confront contagious diseases. There is no new recruitment of health personnel. Wages are low and often not even paid. Consequently, health workers in these countries are forced to seek work in other fields or abroad. Before the latest Ebola outbreak, Liberia had 60 medical doctors and Sierra Leone 130. According to the WHO, in 2004, these countries had only one medical professional for every 10,000 people. Now this situation is five times worse – one medical professional for every 50,000 people.

Political economy of Ebola

At the height of Ebola casualties, the infectious disease specialist Jeremy Farr, head of the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s leading medical research charities, wrote in the Toronto Star, “Imagine if you take a region of Canada, America, Europe, and you had 450 people dying of a viral haemorrhagic fever. It would just be unacceptable – and it’s unacceptable in West Africa.” In 2009, when a researcher was accidentally infected by Ebola, Canada provided an experimental vaccine on an emergency basis to save just this one person. “We moved heaven and earth to help a German lab technician. Why is it different because this is West Africa?” (Cited in “The Political Economy of Ebola”, Leigh Phillips, Jacobin, one of the sources drawn on for this article)

One important reason is that producing Ebola vaccine is not profitable, because the outbreaks tend to not last very long and the casualties are much lower than malaria (300,000 a year) or tuberculosis (600,000 a year). In a piece in the Independent, John Ashton, head of an independent UK body of specialists known as the Faculty of Public Health, lambasted “the scandal of the lack of willingness of the pharmaceutical industry to invest in research to produce vaccines – something they refuse to do because the numbers involved are, in their eyes, so small and don’t justify investment. This is the moral bankruptcy of capitalism acting in the absence of an ethical and social framework. We must respond to this emergency as if it was in Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster.”

Yet there is no sign of an ethical response a year after the current outbreak, despite the outcry from people who care. In fact, as WHO head Margaret Chan said, “Ebola emerged nearly four decades ago. Why are clinicians still empty-handed, with no vaccines and no cure? Because Ebola has historically been confined to poor African nations. The R&D [research and development] incentive is virtually non-existent. A profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay.” In a world system where the scramble for profit determines everything, this system is unable to unleash humanity’s abilities to fight natural and other disasters. Ebola is not an African problem.

As the WHO said, “the Ebola epidemic ravaging parts of West Africa is the most severe public health emergency seen in modern times. Never before in recorded history has a biosafety level four pathogen [the most dangerous germs] infected so many people so quickly, over such a broad geographical area, for so long.” In the face of criticism of the WHO for its ineffective response to the Ebola outbreak, which WHO officials attributed to severe cutbacks in funding for its work in Africa, the “international community” (the 193 WHO member states) decided to give the international agency $100 million to organize a team to deal with future health emergencies, Ebola outbreaks included. By comparison, constructing a single hospital in Europe or North America can easily cost a billion dollars.

From all these we can conclude that what lies behind the ravages of Ebola is more horrifying than Ebola itself – the state of countries ruined by years of wars, destruction, hunger, poverty, oppression and exploitation. These and all the miseries of the people on this side of the world are the result of direct and indirect imperialist rule and the policies of imperialist institutions, the blind working of the international market to which all countries are subjected, and the puppet and despotic regimes in power in these countries as a result of imperialist domination. All these factors created the fertile ground for the Ebola virus to proliferate.

Why is it that an epidemic that began with one person in one isolated corner of West Africa caused so much devastation and grief in these countries, while the handful of cases that appeared in Europe and North America did not? It is largely because of what imperialism has done and continues to do to Africa in general and Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia in particular.

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