Last week we saw person to person Ebola transmission on three continents. And in a global culture obsessed with contagion themed apocalypse entertainment, we’re seeing the beginning of a social media panic with the US, according to Twitter trending stats, leading the world in Ebola Tweets. And this is only the beginning. Or is it?
The Ebola story goes back almost four decades, to 1976, when the first two outbreaks occurred in the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like Malaria, which kills millions around the world, Ebola found a sympathetic partner in a neo-liberal global economy that allocates resources based not on need, but on where corporate capital can find the easiest path to profits. Malaria, by nature, strikes tropical regions dominated by poor people. Ebola, by history, has only hit Africa. Medical research is expensive and usually driven by private investment, which is drawn to profit, not service. Hence, while Malaria continued to devastate the third world, and Ebola lay in hiding like a time bomb, the medical industry mostly ignored both, putting money into more profitable pursuits such as developing erectile dysfunction drugs for octogenarians.
With corporate research money heading toward more profitable products, fighting diseases like Ebola is left to the public sector. Across Africa, where colonialism plundered resources and neo-liberalism saddled governments with structural debt, the public sector isn’t too robust, often unable to provide basic infrastructure for potable water or education. Developing an advanced medical research sector ain’t happening. This leaves the continent at the mercy of American and European philanthropy, which often seems drawn more to sexier or trending causes, like saving wildlife or hating the eminently hateable Joseph Kony.
First world apathy toward Ebola continued even as the current epidemic unfolded over the last six months, eventually spreading to seven counties, with Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea hit the hardest. A month ago, the World Health Organization’s Assistant Director, General Bruce Aylward, declared that the Ebola epidemic has become a health crisis “unparalleled in modern times.” That means, since the Black Death ravaged Europe and the holocaust of European diseases decimated native America.
Aylward asked for one billion dollars to combat the epidemic. To put this number in perspective, that’s $400 million less than Fracking magnate and uber sports fan Terry Pegula paid last week to buy the Buffalo Bills. Weeks went by with no real support from any first world nation, as hospitals in Liberia turned Ebola patients away, sending the infection back into crowded slums, while the disease jumped international borders and an ocean. To date, only poor and small Cuba took the threat seriously, initially sending the most medical aid to Africa, with about 450 health workers either on the ground or on their way. If we are to stem a global Ebola pandemic, however, tens of thousands of health care workers along with hundreds of new field hospitals are immediately needed in Africa.
The private sector won’t supply the money, the personnel or the infrastructure needed to fight Ebola. That leaves the public sector, which in our country has been decimated by over three decades of funding cuts stemming from the “shrink government until it fits in your pocket” mentality of the Reagan era. The problem is that small government cannot meet big tasks. This argument comes most alarmingly from Dr. Francis Collins, who heads the National Institutes of Health, which is the agency tasked with developing a vaccine and other drugs to fight Ebola. A seemingly exasperated Collins, in an interview last week with The Huffington Post, said that the agency, in all likelihood, would have already developed, tested and produced an Ebola vaccine, “if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support.” This would be due to the Reagan small government doctrine administered under the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Collins explained that the agency didn’t just start working on an Ebola response recently, but began its work 13 years ago. Even so, the timeline he lays out, with or without budget issues, is unacceptable, with the agency not taking serious action until 25 years after the first Ebola outbreak.
Another issue not getting much press is how state, federal and private health care cuts have served to decimate the surge capacity in our health care system. The old model provided extra beds, which almost always sat empty, but sure were and are appreciated during health emergencies when resources are strained. The profit-driven health care model, combined with an almost sociopathic drive for “efficiency,” eliminated the “wasted resources” essential to having a surge capacity able to provide care in a crisis. If Ebola arrives on our shores in any serious way, I’m sure we’ll have the debate we should have been having over the past four decades, only we’ll be having it too late.
In many developing nations, it wasn’t the manic drive for “efficiency” in the private sector that decimated health care. It was the “structural adjustments” that lending agencies such as the World Bank forced upon nations, demanding that they limit or cut health care funding. We’re also seeing the effect of this structural adjustment and austerity on the ground around the world as nations try to plan for dealing with a health crisis they now have no infrastructure to meet.
We’re only talking about Ebola to the degree that we are now because an uninsured Ebola patient in Texas received minimal attention and was sent home with some useless pills, allowing the disease to gain strength in his body and threaten a continent. For 38 years we sat on our hands, thinking Ebola only affected Africa. And, quite frankly, call it racism, greed or just indifference, Americans didn’t really give a shit about Africa. Once upon a time, such indifference would never have come home to roost. But the world is a lot smaller now. Our mistreatment of global others, be it in the way of economic injustice, environmental injustice or just depraved indifference to human life, eventually impacts us all. Ebola might be global neo-liberal capitalism’s greatest test.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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