Ebola: an epidemic made in the capitals of Europe and America

A spoof Daily Mail front page is currently circulating on the internet, screaming that giant Islamic spiders are spreading Ebola in Britain and, what's more, at taxpayers’ expense. It won’t be long before we see life imitating art.

The American television studio CNN is already likening the Ebola threat to ISIS. It is only a matter of time before right-wing British papers begin to ramp up more hysteria on Ebola. But it will not be funny; it will be directed in the usual viciously racist manner against West Africans in particular and all Africans in general. Nigel Farage’s disgraceful comments about barring HIV-positive visitors to the UK is just the start.

The British Government has already introduced screening for passengers coming into major airports from Africa, but this is more a response to political pressure than a serious measure to limit the disease. Because the incubation period of the disease is anything from 2 to 21 days after exposure, taking the temperature of passengers coming off planes from overseas would have a minimal effect on its spread.

Exponential spread and scale

The Ebola epidemic is the most serious known since the disease was first discovered in Zaire in 1976. As this is written, the known death toll in West Africa is already nearing 4400 and it has been estimated that the disease is now spreading exponentially. Bearing in mind the clear possibility that many deaths go unreported the real death toll may be much higher.

Previous outbreaks were relatively limited, largely because they occurred in isolated communities, so although the mortality rates were extremely high, they died out of their own accord after a period of time. But this outbreak is different in that it has affected areas of high population, with far better communication and transport links, so that it is now spreading virtually out of control. Moreover, this strain of the virus is different to the strains found in Central Africa and is more virulent, with a mortality rate of up to 70 per cent.

The epidemic now has such a momentum and scale that it has the potential to kill millions in Africa. Moreover, the virus, rather than be confined to relatively small and isolated outbreaks as in the past, might then become endemic within the human population, so that outbreaks become more common and more dangerous. Given the range and scale of modern transport and mobility, it also has the potential to cause serious outbreaks outside of Africa.

Further worries for the representatives of capitalism

The rate of spread of the disease has now begun to exercise the minds of the august representatives of US and European capitalism. Ebola is clearly beginning to worry the political representative of capitalism.

Now the leaders of the World Bank and the IMF have called on member states to send significant aid – they are now talking in billions of dollars rather than millions – to West Africa. They have expressed their concerns about the threats to billions of dollars-worth of trade and economic growth in Africa. These representatives of the 1% think only in terms of dollar bills, of course. They had nothing of any note to say when Ebola was confined to a few hundred Africans. But leaving that thought aside, it has to be said that should the disease spread in any significant numbers outside Africa, it has the potential of creating economic, social and political damage on an incalculable scale. Even the former leader of the British Army has stated bluntly on TV that he thinks Ebola is a more serious problem than ISIS.

No money spent on the health of the poor

The virus behind Ebola has been studied for forty years since its first discovery and in fact a vaccination has been prepared and is currently in the ‘clinical trials’ stage of development. But questions have to asked about the preparedness and even the willingness of the big international drugs companies in terms of their research and development. Diseases that affect the low income countries have always been the ones with the lowest priority for the drug corporations because there is no profit in them. They have therefore had the least amount of research and development.

While billions of dollars are thrown at the research and production of vaccinations for relatively mild strains of flu – because they affect the populations of the advanced capitalist countries – diseases like malaria, dengue fever, Lassa fever and Ebola have relatively few resources committed to them so the development of vaccinations is slow at best. But now that there is a serious possibility of this disease spreading outside of Africa and given its very high mortality, we can now expect western government to direct big Pharma to commit far more significant resources to vaccination development

"Natural" epidemic or symptom of capitalist decay?

The labour movement must make clear, however, that the whole Ebola problem is not and has never been a medical or a scientific one. It is an issue of under-development and exploitation. It is an epidemic made in the capitals of Europe and North America. It is not an accident that by any measure of health – infant mortality rates, number of doctors per head of population, life expectancy, etc, etc – the data for Africa as a whole is far worse than that of Europe, America and the rest of the world.

All three of the countries mostly affected by the disease have suffered civil wars, corruption, under-development and blatant exploitation by western mining and other corporations, with little benefit going back to the local population.

Guinea, where the outbreak started, is a country rich with mineral deposits, including iron ore, uranium, gold, diamonds and what is estimated as a quarter of the world's proven reserves of bauxite, from which Aluminium is extracted. It is not surprising then, that the IMF has been heavily involved in ‘managing’ the economy recently, encouraging “business-friendly” policies to maximise inward investment, in other words to maximise the outflow of profit. Mining makes up 90 per cent of the value of Guinea’s exports and the government have been “encouraged” to reduce taxes. In April last year, for example, the National Transition Council (Government) reduced corporation taxes and cut the tax on bauxite to only 0.15 per cent of the international market price.

Exploitation by imperialism

For the mass of the population, therefore, this mineral wealth has produced very little benefit. Even after falling recently, the inflation rate is still near to 100 per cent and as recently as 2009, it was reported that the average wage was about 45 US cents an hour. In Guinea, health care is a privilege granted only to those who can afford it. Private health expenditure makes up 89% of total health expenditure and total health spending per person per year is only $23.

The situation is Liberia is little different. Here, last year the economy grew by over 8 per cent, but that represent the exportation of mineral ores and profits. Little came back the mass of the population. About 85 percent of the population continues to live below the poverty line and here too the government has reduced corporation tax rates at the behest of western companies exploiting local resources.

Sierra Leone, the third country most seriously affected, was left – like most of West Africa – in abject poverty after its so-called independence in 1961. So-called, because independence has been nominal: international corporations have called the shots for the last fifty years, ably assisted by corrupt bureaucrats, officials and politicians. Civil war has affected all these countries in the last two decades and in Sierra Leone it resulted in more than 50,000 deaths and an untold number of injuries and trauma. Much of the country's infrastructure was destroyed and more than two million people were displaced, many ending up as refugees in neighbouring countries.

Blood diamonds and civil war

The arms that kept these civil wars going were paid for by diamonds illegally mined and then exported. These so-called ‘blood diamonds’ were channelled through shadowy Middle Eastern and European markets while western governments and big corporations looked the other way.

Since the end of the civil war, Sierra Leone has continued to be dominated by big multinational corporations and remains one of the world’s most corrupt states. In theory, like its neighbours, it should be a wealthy country, with huge deposits of diamonds, bauxite, iron ore and rutile (titanium ore). But in fact, it is one of the poorest countries in Africa. That might have something to do with the fact that the government has made a number of sweetheart deals with mining and agribusiness companies to ‘incentivise’ their exploitation of Sierra Leone’s resources.

A report published by a group of charities in April last year highlighted the huge tax breaks that a number of big companies had been granted, almost in every case at the discretion of a small number of ministers and officials, with very limited involvement of Parliament, and no public consultation at all.

In 2011, the report points out, Sierra Leone spent more on tax give-aways than on its own development priorities, with mining firms the biggest beneficiaries. In 2012, these tax exemptions amounted to more than eight times Sierra Leone’s health budget and seven times its education budget.

In the mining sector, says the report, the government abolished all customs duties on capital equipment, made companies exempt from payment of a tax on goods and services and offered major reductions in corporate income tax to two recent British investors, London Mining and African Minerals.

London Mining was granted a 6 per cent income tax rate for the first three years of operation, compared to the statutory 30 per cent. African Minerals had to pay 25 per cent.

In the agribusiness sector, the government now gives all investors a 10-year holiday on corporate income tax payments and reductions on customs duties. Swiss company Addax Bioenergy, however, received a 13-year exemption from income tax.

Scepticism and scarcity

The legacy of ‘independence’, therefore, for the mass of the population of all three of these countries, has been civil war, corruption, poverty and unemployment. The United Nations estimated two years ago that there were 800,000 youth in Sierra Leone – over 60% - either unemployed or underemployed. Over 50% of the population in this age group is also illiterate.

It is hardly surprising, that when the epidemic first broke out, the local population in many areas were deeply suspicious. They were so used to scams, corruptions and government fiddles at all levels that many of them even doubted that there was such a thing as ‘Ebola’ – they thought it was just another scam to con people out of their homes and livelihoods.

On top of the lack of education, sanitation, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia are been poorly equipped to deal with any serious medical emergency. The appalling poverty has been expressed in terms of medical provision as it does in everything else. There is one doctor to every 350 people in Britain, but Sierra Leone, with a population of six million, has only about 120 doctors, ie about one in every 50,000. In Liberia, it is one to every 70,000.

The shortage of medical staff is matched by the shortage of supplies, needles, sterilisation equipment, isolation suits, intravenous drips, antibiotics for secondary infections and so on and so on. The high rate of mortality of Ebola has led to the deaths of 240 medical staff, making the problems of dealing with the disease far more difficult. There is a very serious risk that the medical staff will be overwhelmed with new cases, expected to rise to more than ten thousand a week.

The British government has now sent a military field hospital to Sierra Leone as well as a hospital ship. Less than a dozen US doctors have volunteered to go, compared to the 400 who went to Haiti after the earthquake, in contrast with Cuba which has sent hundreds of doctors and medical staff to West Africa. The response of the main capitalist states has been far too little and far too late and no more than a minimal rebate for all the exploitation and plunder of Africa for centuries. A cynic might be forgiven for adding that even this meagre assistance would not have been forthcoming, had the disease not threatened to migrate out of Africa.

The capitalism system is diseased

The question has to be asked, what would be the relationship of a socialist government to former colonies like Sierra Leone? A socialist government would have a completely different relationship with the former colonies of Africa, not leeching off them like the multi-national corporations do today but making serious and earnest efforts to promote development, modernisation of society and the promotion of general well-being.

In tackling an epidemic like Ebola, such a government would be in a position to provide huge quantities of supplies and specialist medical equipment. It could train and equipment medical staff going to African countries and staff already there. It would be part of an overall aid programme to promote economic development to tackle lack of housing, sanitation, medical facilities, education and employment.

A socialist government would have no confidence in the big pharmaceutical companies, and the private companies with make medical equipment and supplies, all of which operate only for profit and it would take these into public ownership, to be run in the interests of the whole of society. Working with academic organisations and science laboratories, the pharmaceutical industry could direct its research across a range of medical issues and problems according to need and not based whether or not there would be a profit at the end of it.

Unfortunately, the Ebola epidemic looks likely to have a long way to run before it is eventually contained and eliminated. It would be a serious mistake to suggest that the issue is somehow ‘above’ or ‘removed’ from other general political issues. In so far as Ebola is a threat to the lives of millions of people – and it is a threat – it is as much a symptom of the decay and stagnation of capitalism as a hundred other things. The fight against this appalling disease should not make us pause, take up international aid or make Ebola a ‘special’ issue, but should give us even more reason to get rid of a system which has poverty, ignorance, war and disease built into its very fabric.