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Ebola: capitalism's latest epidemic

Jesse McLaren

October 12, 2014

The Ebola virus is carried in fruit bats but can infect humans in close contact—causing fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and bleeding. It spreads through body secretions, is prevented by contact precautions, and is treated with supportive care. So why has Ebola exploded into epidemic that has killed thousands and is threatening millions?
Environmental change
Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea—the centre of the epidemic—have immense natural resources but are amongst the poorest countries on earth. Liberia has the biggest rubber plantation in the world, Sierra Leone is famous for its diamonds, and Guinea produces vast amounts of bauxite and aluminum. But while corporations making billions, the vast majority of people living in these countries live in extreme poverty.
Many live on subsistence farming and have to cut down the trees to make charcoal for fuel and timber to sell. Mining and deforestation are pushing human populations into greater contact with animals, increasing the risk of zoonotic infections that jump from animals to humans. As veterinary epidemiologist Jonathan Epstein explained, “Expansion of human impact can really trigger outbreaks. Deforestation, building roads, expanding farms into areas that used to be dense forest—all those things increase the opportunity for wild animals to get into contact with livestock and humans.” Declining crop yields from climate change also drive people to alternate sources of food, including bats and the animals they infect.
Neoliberalism and austerity
Mining is not the only process that is stripping the West African countries of resources. Each of the countries affected by Ebola have huge amounts of external debt—much of it accumulated during dictatorships and civil war—which international institutions like the IMF and World Bank use to impose neoliberal policies. In Liberia one fifth of children are malnourished and less than a quarter of the population have access to sanitation—conditions ideal for the spread and high mortality of Ebola.
Local governments have also worsened the epidemic, prioritizing police security over healthcare workers. Nurses at Liberia’s largest hospital went on strike last month demanding basic protection. As their spokesperson, John Tugbeh, explained: “From the beginning of the Ebola outbreak we have not had any protective equipment to work with. As result, so many doctors got infected by the virus…We need proper equipment to work with and we need better pay because we are going to risk our lives.” But there have been ample resources for police to forcibly control people and repress protests. As local resident Isaac Momolu described: “They deployed police, armed forces…beating people.”
Austerity measures have also undermined the international medical response. While governments provided billions to bail out banks and corporations, they cut funding to the World Health Organization—which in the last couple of years cut 300 jobs and 50 per cent of its budget allocated to crisis and outbreak response.
Small profits for Big Pharma
Though Ebola was first discovered in 1976 and has had repeated outbreaks since then, medical treatments are still only at their experimental stages. Publicly-funded institutions like Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Lab are slowly investigating treatments, while multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical companies can’t be bothered to find a treatment for a non-profitable disease.
The Onion’s headline “Ebola vaccine at least 50 white people away” was not only disturbingly accurate but its satirical appearance in July was ahead of the real action from international institutions. As Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Atul Gawande explained, “this outbreak started last December. Starting at March 31st, Doctors Without Borders said the hospitals in Guinea and in Liberia are overwhelmed, and they were crying for help. As late as September 2nd, they were telling the U.N. and others that the help being provided is a shambles, that this is a disease that is doubling in the number of cases every three weeks. And our response was pathetic. We simply mounted no substantial response. It might have been the best thing that has happened that the first case to leave the African continent came to America, because it brought our mobilization to realize what happens there matters to us here. And suddenly, we are now mobilizing thousands of people to go. The CDC has mounted the largest global operation for public health in U.S. government history.”
Healthcare not warfare
But the US government response is using public health to drive its imperial goals. The US is framing its military intervention against both ISIS and Ebola in humanitarian terms, but militarism worsens the conditions spreading both. According to Obama, “We’re going to establish a military command centre in Liberia to support civilian efforts across the region, similar to our response after the Haiti earthquake. It’s going to be commanded by major General Darryl Williams, commander of our Army forces in Africa.”
The reference to Haiti is instructive. As Haitian activist Camille Chalmers said after the earthquake, “One scandal is that the Haitian people’s movement and their organizations have been excluded by the international community from decision-making in solutions to this crisis. We have, for instance, the IMF loan which is not a grant that matches the dimensions of this human tragedy, but an extortionist and cynical loan tied to conditionalities in order to facilitate a more favorable environment for transnational investment in Haiti. There is going to be a grab for the reconstruction, like in Iraq, with American transnationals profiting off the reconstruction.What the U.S. is doing—the militarization of Haiti with the pathetic excuse of humanitarian aid—is unacceptable… We have to denounce the militarization of the aid, not just for Haiti for the whole region. There is a spectacular deployment of arms, with combat boats and combat airplanes, which has no correspondence with a humanitarian crisis.”
The US wants to do the same in West Africa, as part of its inter-imperial rivalry with China. In 2007 the US set up a command centre for Africa, AFRICOM, and this is how a State Department advisor described its role: “protecting access to hydrocarbons and other strategic resources which Africa has in abundance … a task which includes ensuring against the vulnerability of those natural riches and ensuring that no other interested third parties, such as China, India, Japan, or Russia, obtain monopolies or preferential treatment.” AFRICOM’s first venture was the 2011 war on Libya (which has Africa’s largest oil reserves), and then the war on Mali (the third largest gold reserves on the continent). China is the biggest trading partner of Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the US is using the Ebola epidemic to send 3,000 troops to compete with China for access to diamond, bauxite, rubber and other resources.
Ebola is natural, but the epidemic is not. It is a product of capitalism’s war on the planet, of neoliberalism and austerity, of the indifference of profit-driven pharmaceutical companies, and of the cynical use of such a crisis for imperial strategy. Knowing what is spreading Ebola shows what’s necessary to address it and to prevent future epidemics: stop climate change, drop the debt and support local health workers, invest in public research, and divert military spending into real humanitarian aid.
Join the discussion “Ebola: capitalism’s latest epidemic”, Sunday October 26, 5:30pm at the Steelworkers Hall (25 Cecil St. Toronto)

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