Ebola: Our Health vs Their Wealth

The current Ebola outbreak is the largest in history. So far there have been over 5000 official deaths but Doctors Without Borders, one of the main organizations on the ground in West Africa, reported that the outbreak is more likely as high as twenty thousand deaths, having wiped out whole villages outside the cities.  But worst of all this is an outbreak that never needed to happen.

Over a decade ago, an Ebola vaccine was created and proven to be 100 percent effective in animal tests. But the vaccine never made it to the next stage of testing on humans because the big pharmaceutical companies didn’t want to pay the research costs. They were worried about being able to sell the vaccine once it was fully developed because they knew they couldn’t profit off of it if Ebola was only affecting poor countries in Africa. So they decided to wait. And only now, after it has spread to a few U.S. and European cases, do the pharmaceutical companies see enough potential profit to start steps to have the vaccine produced.

This is the pathetic logic that we are supposed to rely on in this fight against Ebola. Our actual health is not the issue – what’s at stake are not the lives of thousands, potentially tens of thousands in West Africa and maybe around the world. No – what matters are the profits of corporations. The sick priority, of putting profit over our lives, is what stands in the way of a real response to Ebola.

The Ebola virus is deadly and contagious, but it can only be passed through direct contact with body fluids. It can be contained as long as it is identified and medical personnel have the right protective equipment, training, and adequate staffing levels. But none of this was sent to West Africa as the disease was spreading. The U.S. and other wealthy countries didn’t begin to mount a response until it became clear it could spread to their countries. But even this response has been pathetic.

In the U.S. we see the same profit-driven logic creating obstacles to responding to Ebola. The hospital companies don’t want to spend any extra money – they want to make money. They aren’t eager to dip into their profits to pay for real training and prevention. After the first case in Atlanta, nurses reported that they didn’t even have the right protective suits. Their preparation and training was minimal. The hospital didn’t want to spend the money – and no extra money was provided.

And the same thinking is happening across the country. According to reports, most hospitals in the U.S. would be able to handle one or two Ebola patients at best. Hospitals and Emergency rooms are already stretched to capacity, packed full with hours-long wait times. It’s cheaper to keep staffing low, and just force everyone else to pick up the extra slack. If there were a real outbreak of any virus – this system of profit would be standing in the way of mounting a real response.

Even now, some hospitals have claimed to be preparing their staff to respond to an outbreak of Ebola if it does occur. But for them this means spending the least amount of money, and doing as little as possible. Hospitals have shown some videos and handed out some leaflets. And sent workers from already short-staffed departments into sessions to watch these videos. But the workers know this is just a show – a way to pretend like preparing.

Hospitals would need to stop short staffing every floor, increase personnel to allow actual training. There would need to be more rooms, beds, space, equipment. But this takes money and no hospital is willing to part with profits to pay for a real response unless they were forced to – probably only when it would be too late. But there’s more than enough wealth in this country to pay for all of this – and it’s a crime not use it.

The most devastating impact of the Ebola virus isn’t how deadly the virus is itself. It’s the conscious decision to hang back, and do so little. Even if the Ebola outbreak subsides, and hopefully it will, it won’t be because of the pathetic response of wealthy governments. It will be because we just got lucky this time.