Ebola: Price Paid for Years of Oppression

The spreading of the Ebola Epidemic has been one of this year’s biggest stories. The epidemic broke out in the three small Western African countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and almost the entire burden of the outbreak is being borne by them. There have been four reported cases in the US (and a death) and a few in Europe, which have led to the belief that the epidemic is going global. However, the three countries and their neighbours have shut down borders. Guinea-Bissau and Cote d’Ivoire that share borders with the three Ebola-affected countries have not reported a single case so far. Mali has reported one death from Ebola, Senegal has had one case; Nigeria has had 20 cases and eight deaths so far. Both Senegal and Nigeria have no current transmission of the virus and have been declared Ebola-free. One case has been reported from Spain.

No doubt, the disease is scary and transmits very swiftly and thus, the instances of infections have to be reported. But, the global media is almost entirely missing the point and fails to bring forth the underlying reasons for Western Africa reeling under the brunt of Ebola i.e. the plundering of resources from these third world countries rich in natural resources by first world or ‘core’ nations like the US or those in Europe.  WHO Director Margaret Chan has stated that, “The (Ebola) outbreak spotlights the dangers of the world’s growing social and economic inequalities.”

The exploitation of resources by capitalist nations is not recent; Europeans were involved in the slave trade and in this manner stole free labour. Even though now, slavery is said to be a thing of the past, the capitalist motive of profit fuels the extraction of raw material like diamonds, gold, bauxite to oil, and at unimaginably low prices, from the African continent. Ironically, majority of Africans are left out of the payroll when, the large extractive industries running on their own natural resources, draw profits. So, it is not surprising that, the three countries worst hit by the epidemic, are some of the poorest – Sierra Leone ranks 161st, Guinea 176th and Liberia 181st of 185 countries, with respect to GDP per capita. 

Liberia is essentially a colony of the United States, US rubber-giant: Bridgestone (Firestone), has operated the world’s largest rubber plantation here, since 1926.  The company negotiated a million-acre concession, at six cents per acre, for ninety years. Thus, US cars began running on Liberian rubber and huge profits saw their way into US pockets. The corporation had promised generation of 350,000 jobs but hardly created a quarter of that number. 

Thus, the longstanding political instability in these African nations and the losses borne owing to civil wars, are also reasons why the African nations could be guided by the imperialist powers like US or Britain. 

One of the many negatives as a result of plundering of wealth from the continent has been the inability of the countries, to fund a proper healthcare system. Africa bears 24% of the world’s infectious disease burden but to combat these figures, has a mere 3% of the world’s health-care professionals. The three countries at an average can spend barely 45$ per person on health-care. As the figures suggest, a health-care system which was weak anyway has almost collapsed with the Ebola outbreak. In Sierra Leone, the nation’s only large children’s hospital was forced to shut down following one of the children being diagnosed with Ebola. In Liberia, there are not enough beds available to treat all infected persons and thus, majority of them stay home and are cared for by family members which, further leads to transmission of infection onto the latter. Even before, the current epidemic killed a few of the health professionals, they were already an endangered class in Liberia because less than fifty health professionals were catering to the medical needs of a population of more than four million people. That suggests, that one doctor was responsible for about 100,000 people as compared to the 240 per 100,000 ration in the United States or 670 in Cuba. 

Another factor that, has contributed to the spread of Ebola, is the large-scale deforestation in these countries by industries, since, scientists have now discovered direct links between deforestation and the increasing frequency and severity of Ebola outbreaks. 

As always, the US has stepped in to occupy the moral high ground, and is sending in US army troops to fight the Ebola virus. The idea is almost laughable. An army is trained to fight wars and not take part in humanitarian work, as is the requirement of the hour. 

Another horrific outcome of capitalist market is the absence of the Ebola vaccine. The large Pharmaceutical profit-driven companies, did not start research on a Ebola vaccine earlier because they have little incentive to pour money into curing a disease that surfaces sporadically in low-income African countries, since they are unlikely to see a large pay-cheque at the end. 

So, it can be said that a weak or almost absent health system in the affected countries and not unprecedented virulence or unknown modes of transmission are to be blamed for the Ebola outbreak. The weakened public health system is not only a result of poor economic growth or natural resource exploitation by capitalist nations but also, due to the losses owing to the civil wars, ethnic massacres and coups in the three countries in the past and the lacking of a strong state. The political instability in the region is mainly driven by rural elites fighting to control sources of raw materials, to sell to the giant Western corporations amid increasingly difficult economic situations in the world market. 

The stories covered by the Western media about the Ebola outbreak have not managed to (or maybe not wanted to) bring out the irony of this paranoia of the Western world about Ebola.That it is a virus coming back to haunt them, but in reality there is a very slim chance of them contracting the virus as is facilitated by the increasingly unequal global economy. And funnily enough, the contributor to this inequality has largely, if not entirely, been the Western world.