The Ebola outbreak, which started last March in Guinea, has continued to spread in West Africa. With close to 3500 dead, it now affects six countries in the region. It has quickly gone from an outbreak to a pandemic. It is estimated that the virus could infect over one million people. It is not just a health threat, but is causing a social and economic crisis of huge proportions to the already poor and suffering peoples of the region. The Minister of Defense of Liberia, one of the countries seriously affected, said “Ebola threatens the very existence” of his country.
Ebola, a virus which exists mainly in Africa, was identified in 1976 in the Congo. Infection results in a hemorrhagic fever which is lethal to 60% of those who catch it. But, since 1976, no vaccine has been developed and tested. Ebola is regarded as a disease of the poor in Africa. Big drug companies are not interested in researching it since they won’t make a big profit selling the vaccines, as those currently impacted cannot afford medicines of any kind.
Transmission of the virus, is by direct contact with body fluids or organs of an infected person. So controlling the spread of Ebola relies on a quick diagnosis of the virus, placing the patient in an isolation area and identifying and tracking the patient’s previous contacts. This is where the totally underfunded and underdeveloped health systems of the countries where people are sick and dying prevents such a response. In Liberia, there is only one doctor for every 100,000 inhabitants.
Why has this happened? Liberia, with a population of a little over four million people, has been under the control of the United States since its birth in 1822. From 1989 to 2003, the US supported rival political factions or dictatorships. Recent civil wars have taken the lives of nearly 200,000 people and forced 800,000 others to flee their country. Today Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world with an average yearly income of $454. It is a country rich in raw materials. For decades it was basically a rubber plantation for Firestone Tire. More recently it has been a source for diamonds and a tax haven and a place where shipping companies can register their ships to escape liability in case of accidents and avoid regulation of working conditions for sailors.
In Sierra Leone, the other major victim of the Ebola virus, life expectancy is around 45 years. It has also been torn apart by civil war, with warlords building their armies with children, fighting for control over the trade in what are known as “blood diamonds”. These tragedies occurred with the full knowledge, and often support, of the European and US powers.
The Ebola pandemic is the horrific result of centuries of robbery of the African continent by the richest countries which owe much of their current wealth to the enslavement of Africans and plundering of African resources. Confronted with this disaster, those responsible have been slow with their minimal response. The US has waited until now to send 3000 troops and promise $100 million to supposedly help fight the Ebola pandemic. Compare this to the more than one trillion dollars the US government has spent on its wars on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. During these wars, the US deployed whole field hospitals, health services, helicopters and personnel in a matter of days. It has taken months to send a small amount of aid to these African nations.
We live in a world today where the divisions between the rich and the poor are growing – not just between the rich nations of the world and the regions they have impoverished, but between the wealthy of the rich nations and the rest of us. The basics of life, like health care, are not considered a right, but just another way for the rich to profit.
The desperate poverty and diseases that have been restricted to much of Africa and Asia are having an impact here as well. The threat of Ebola spreading beyond West Africa is now a reality. And maybe that is why there is the beginning of a response. The Ebola pandemic is just another example of why we cannot depend on those who are responsible for these problems to solve them. This is a sick system that needs to be removed before it kills us all.