Ebola crisis: Rich countries must respond

In Liberia, where many people have been killed by the Ebola virus, nurses and physicians went on strike on Sept. 1, 2 and 4 due to lack of pay and the dangers they face due to the minimal resources available to address the burgeoning health care disaster.

This West African state, which maintains political and economic ties with the United States, has documented nearly 700 deaths due to the Ebola virus. Nurses demanded the necessary protective and medical resources to both screen and treat patients impacted by the spreading sickness, which has a high level of fatalities.

On Sept. 1, the nurses said they were determined to stay away from work until they have “personal protective equipment (PPEs), including the hazmat-style covering gear that guards against the spread of the disease,” said John Tugben, speaking for the strikers at Monrovia’s John F. Kennedy Hospital. “From the beginning of the Ebola outbreak we have not had any protective equipment to work with. As a result, so many doctors got infected by the virus. We have to stay home until we get the PPEs.” (afp.com, Sept. 2)

Pointing to the absence of adequate salaries to meet the high cost of living, George Williams, secretary general of the Health Workers Association of Liberia, told Reuters on Sept. 2, “Health workers have died [fighting Ebola], including medical doctors at … JFK and to have them come to work without food on their table … is pathetic.”

Outbreaks spread across region

Cases of the Ebola virus have been reported in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Conakry, Nigeria and Senegal. A few cases have also been reported in the northern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

International organizations concerned with relief and humanitarian crises in Africa and other parts of the world stress that Western industrialized states, including the U.S., are not paying significant attention to the spread of the disease.  At least three cases reported in the U.S. were acquired by people working in West African health care sectors.

The U.N. World Health Organization issued this statemen: “The following countries share land borders or major transportation connections with the affected countries and are therefore at risk for spread of the Ebola outbreak: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, and Senegal.” The “agency and its partners” will assist programs established in the newly impacted states with “Ebola surveillance, preparedness and response plans.” (UN News Centre, Aug. 29)

Overall figures vary on the number of Ebola cases and deaths. Some reports indicate there are about 2,000 fatalities spanning Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Conakry.

Doctors Without Borders has also sounded the alarm about the disease’s rapid spread. Its president, Joanne Liu, in a special U.N. Briefing on Ebola on Sept. 2, warned that Ebola’s rapid spread since March has raised this issue to a level of international security, which requires specialized biomedical disaster response units to stop the increasing infections.

Liu stressed, “Six months into the worst Ebola epidemic in history, the world is losing the battle to contain it.”  She criticized “a global coalition of inaction.” (doctorswithoutborders.org)

Ebola’s economic impact

Research centers in West Africa, as well as WHO, say that Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Conakry — where the disease has hit hardest — lack the healthcare infrastructure and research capacity to effectively handle the crisis. Yet, the advanced capitalist states have been relatively unresponsive to strong warnings about the epidemic’s global threat.

Ghana Online News posted this press release on Sept. 4, issued by Frank Adarkway-Yiadom, executive director of The Centre for African Democratic Affairs: “The current outbreak of Ebola may inflict broad economic damage on most West African countries if the situation is not contained as soon as possible. … The outbreak could have a direct financial effect on government budgets by increasing health expenditures significantly and creating an Ebola-induced economic slowdown on government revenue generation in a region where budgets were already hindered.”

CADA notes that due to the outbreak Caterpillar has evacuated employees from Liberia; Canadian Overseas Petroleum Limited has suspended a drilling project; Kenya Airways has suspended flights to the Ebola-hit West African countries; and British Airways is canceling flights to West African countries.  ExxonMobil and Chevron are waiting to see if the epidemic is contained.

Additional economic and political problems developing as a result of the travel bans include quarantining communities and lack of an effective response by the regional African Union, as well as other continental organizations. Nonetheless, CADA appealed to regional governments to adopt rational policies to contain Ebola’s spread, warning that it could cause unnecessary social, economic and political disruptions. The organization stressed, “Panic is avoided not just by combating an epidemic, but by being seen to do so.”

As of now, 30 deaths have been reported in the northern Equateur province in the Democratic Republic of Congo near the town of Boende, which reportedly resulted from another strand of a similar virus. (news.sciencemag.org, Sept. 2) Located in Africa’s central region, the DRC, like other West African states struck by the disease, is a vast mineral-rich country, which hosts numerous transnational firms that extract natural resources largely for export to Western capitalist states.

Solutions to the crisis must be long-term

Despite the reported record-levels of economic growth in West African states, the rate of real development is not keeping pace with the societies’ demands. The legacies of slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism are still hampering these governments’ capacity to build the necessary health care facilities equipped with modern technology to tackle an outbreak of such a highly contagious disease as Ebola.

In the short term, the affected states must be given the necessary support and assistance to both contain the disease and treat those who are infected by it. However, a process of large-scale investments in health care systems must take place to guard against future epidemics spread through cross-border migration and to stop the decline in living standards among the working class, farmers and the poor amidst burgeoning class divisions in Africa — which stem from the relations of production inherited and maintained by imperialism.

The Western capitalist countries, including the U.S., cannot be relied upon to do much beyond proliferating news reports about the situation in West Africa. Consequently, the Ebola virus epidemic is a manifestation of the need for Africa to become genuinely independent and self-determined, based upon its own interests, as opposed to the economic prerogatives of the Western capitalist countries.

Under a socialist system of government, income from the sale of mineral resources, agricultural cash crops and tourism would be returned to the majority of people through the construction of hospitals and clinics. Medical and educational personnel would be trained and the masses would be effectively mobilized.  A regional approach to such epidemiological crises would provide Africans throughout the continent with a way to address these problems on a collective basis.