“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 [research and development] incentive is virtually non-existent. A profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay.”
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) Dr Margaret Chan was speaking about the Ebola crisis afflicting the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
The Ebola virus disease is usually a fatal condition, which is transmitted by contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. It attacks the body’s immune system, preventing it from detecting the disease. There is no vaccine now and no cure. The usual treatment for infected people is palliative care. That means helping the person’s immune system recover and fight the disease, without actually attacking the original virus.
Dr Chan criticised the pharmaceutical industry's lack of research and development into an Ebola vaccine, stating that with the lack of a profitable market, the drug companies were simply uninterested in investing money and resources into an Ebola vaccine project. She pointedly blamed the real culprit for this crisis; the for-profit medical system.
Not only was there a lack of investment in vaccine research, there was also a complete lack of investment in public health-care structures that would have heavily mitigated against the severity and scope of the current Ebola outbreak.
FOR-PROFIT MEDICAL SYSTEM
The Ebola virus has been known for about 40 years, yet no vaccine has been developed because it was not profitable to do so. This demonstrates the irrationality of an economic system that subordinates human welfare to the corporate bottom line.
The private ownership of pharmaceutical production and health care has meant that without a vaccine, thousands of people have suffered and died needlessly. The for-profit medical system subordinates the physical and mental well-being of people to the pursuit of higher corporate profits.
Ebola has historically affected the poor West African nations, which while nominally independent, have remained in an economically dependent relationship with their former colonial overlords. Economic colonialism never truly ends for those who provide the raw materials and human labour power for giant multinational corporations comfortably headquartered in the West.
The impact of Ebola, as well as other vaccine-preventable diseases such as Dengue and Lassa fever, has been magnified by poverty. Imperialism has plundered West Africa, and the imperial powers are responsible for a policy of malignant neglect, extracting the mineral wealth from these nations while leaving the majority of their populations in a state of abject poverty.
The nations of West Africa are among the poorest in the world. For instance, Sierra Leone has a GDP of US$4.9 billion. In comparison, the former colonial power of that nation, Britain, has a GDP of US$2.52 trillion. Liberia, with its GDP of US$1.95 billion, is dwarfed by its imperial master the US, whose GDP stands at US$16.8 trillion.
These economic statistics translate into huge inequalities for the people of West Africa, most of whom live in fetid, disease-ridden, overcrowded slums without access to basic services. Sierra Leone’s main export is diamonds, accounting for 63% of its total exports, which could contribute to the wealth of that nation. However, Sierra Leone’s people remain dirt poor. One wonders where all that wealth is going.
West Point, a district of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, is home to 75,000 people. West Point has an inadequate water service, with only four public toilets. The beach serves as the lavatory, provides washing and drinking water, and fish from its water are consumed. Disease is rife, with outbreaks of cholera, tuberculosis and diarrhoea.
These conditions have been known for years. Yet the Liberian government and its colonial supervisor the US have never addressed this serious public health issue. It is no wonder that a serious epidemic has spread so rapidly in West Africa, infecting thousands and claiming more than 7000 lives at last count.
It is time to ask why the Ebola outbreak, the most serious medical and humanitarian emergency in years, was missed by the relevant authorities.
RACIST HYSTERIA, XENOPHOBIA AND PANIC
The reaction of the US and other imperialist countries to the Ebola outbreak reveals a great deal about their domestic politics. In the US, there has been an outpouring of racist hysteria, xenophobia and panic about the threat of immigrants, particularly from West Africa, swamping the domestic population and spreading this disease.
In fact, fear itself has become an epidemic. When thousands of W est Africans were afflicted, there was hardly a murmur of concern. However, that all changed when one Liberian, Thomas Eric Duncan, was diagnosed with Ebola in the US. Then, the corporate media went into full hysteria mode.
Anti-immigrant politicians and right-wing crusaders howled their prejudices over the airwaves, as Liberians and West African migrants in the US were subjected to racial attacks and derision. The stigma of infection has done as much damage to people’s lives as the disease itself.
The nurses who treated Duncan were themselves subjected to hysterical outbursts, even though they received proper medical attention and were later cleared of the disease. The main problem in the US was not the Ebola virus, but political opportunism of the lowest kind.
The US did take one measure that greatly affects the lives of the West African people — a measure that has been lost amid the maelstrom of hysteria and panic. The US has deployed troops to West Africa. President Barack Obama insisted that a militarised response was the correct one, because the US needed to maintain its vital interests in that part of the world.
Note that the first priority of the US is to protect its flow of minerals and profits, not the alleviation of human suffering with the deployment of medical resources. The retired chief of the British army, General Sir David Richards, even proposed that NATO take command of the operation to fight Ebola in West Africa.
CUBA SHOWS THE WAY
There is one country, with only a fraction of the finances and resources at the disposal of the US, that has sent doctors, healthcare workers and professionals straight to the afflicted regions and has led the world in its medical international humanism — socialist Cuba.
While the US and Britain have sent troops, Cuba has sent thousands of doctors around the world and has led the world in disaster management. Cuba actually has medical brigades, composed of medical personnel, equipped with the skills and logistics of tackling medical emergencies — all financed by the state.
The Cuban Health Ministry's September announcement that it would send 165 doctors, nurses and experts in infectious diseases to West Africa was praised by Chan, who said it was “the biggest commitment of personnel to the health crisis so far by any country. Some countries have committed funds or small treatment centres, but the thing we need most of all is people, health care workers.”
Cuba possesses exactly what West Africa needs right now — a well-trained, organised and efficient healthcare system. As Conner Gorry explained: "The Henry Reeve Brigade, as it’s known, was established in 2005 by more than 1500 Cuban health professionals trained in disaster medicine and infectious disease containment; built on 40 years of medical aid experience, the volunteer team was outfitted with essential medicines and equipment and prepared to deploy to US regions ravaged by Hurricane Katrina (the offer was rejected by the Bush administration).
"Today, Cuba’s Henry Reeve Brigade is the largest medical team on the ground in West Africa battling Ebola.”
Cuba’s government has directly offered to cooperate with the US in joint efforts to combat the Ebola outbreak. So far, apart from low-level discussions and sporadic communications, the US has not replied.
Cuba’s leading role in fighting the Ebola outbreak, its experience in emergency management and the organised response of its medical system has so far been largely ignored, a telling comment on the priorities of the corporate media.
This has implications for Australia, where the federal government is intent on pursuing the full privatisation of health care. The for-profit healthcare system has failed to respond to the medical disaster of our times, and is responsible for the inadequate conditions that have worsened the impact of the epidemic. The country with the state-funded and planned medical system has demonstrated to the world how to respond in a humane way, saving lives and offering solidarity.
There is one head of state who immediately recognised the seriousness of the Ebola outbreak, urging the relevant international and local authorities to act decisively to save lives.
He said: "A dreadful epidemic is advancing today on our fraternal peoples of Africa, and threatening us all. A high number of cases have been diagnosed with Ebola and many people have perished from the disease in several countries, including two outside the African continent.
"This poses a huge challenge to humanity, one that should be met with utmost urgency. The action of the international community as a whole, under the leadership of the World Health Organization, the Pan American Health Organization and the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, is much needed."
That was Cuba's President Raul Castro.