A catastrophic failure to act

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As the Ebola crisis continues to rage across West Africa, Tokunbo Oke recalls the history of colonialism and neoliberal policies, which has ravaged the continent and left many states unable to withstand the epidemic.

The current Ebola crisis has been running for seven months — yet you would not know that from the media coverage in the West. The epidemic has only become a major concern since US and European citizens have become victims. British nurse William Pooley, who has returned to Sierra Leone to help victims having recovered from Ebola himself, has been rightly hailed for his heroism. But the deaths of several hundred African doctors and nurses from the disease so far have been virtually ignored.

Contrary to the picture spun by the media of the continent as world HQ for nasty diseases, Africa and its people are not dirty. They are, in fact, no less fastidious than Europeans. Neither is the Ebola epidemic a result of people eating bush meat.

There has been a catastrophic failure to act on the part of the richest countries. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and UN have said $1 billion (£615 million) could halt the epidemic. In a world that spends $1.7 trillion on the military each year, this is peanuts. Yet less than half of this has been delivered so far. The WHO downplayed the scale of the outbreak at first. Its head tweeted that Médecins Sans Frontières was “causing panic and alarm” for calling the nature of the outbreak “unprecedented”. The WHO characterised it as “sporadic”. It has now acknowledged that its response was inadequate.

The WHO is funded by states in the UN and after the financial crisis of 2008 funding was drastically cut. The WHO epidemic and pandemic response department was cut by £150 million — around half.

The Ebola epidemic is a tragic outcome of decades of neoliberal destruction and imperialist games being played out on African soil. Before independence the education and health facilities serving the majority of the population in African countries were second class. A good example of this is Nigeria, where the first university was opened in 1948. While it stressed a classical curriculum of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and so on, it had no medical department.

In most African countries the working class was at the forefront of the fight for independence. Once independence had been won, these countries’ rulers invested heavily in education and health. Large sums were spent on training doctors and nurses. It meant that when cholera hit Lagos in Nigeria in 1973 the state was able to carry out a huge public health campaign with mass immunisation, free of charge, and successfully halt an epidemic.

But these newly independent nations were tied economically to the West. Many economies concentrated on just one or two exportable commodities for the bulk of national income, making them highly vulnerable to shocks in the world system. During the capitalist boom following the Second World War, many African countries enjoyed around 6 percent economic expansion each year. They were encouraged to take out large international loans in order to expand their exporting sectors further.

When the world system went into crisis in the early 1970s these debts became enormous burdens. African states found themselves unable to keep up payments. On top of that, many of the export commodities upon which they had depended were no longer in such high demand. The demand for copper, for example, was hit badly by the development of fibre optic cabling.

The IMF and World Bank finally stepped in, imposing structural adjustment programmes — privatisation of public institutions and facilities, an end to agricultural subsidies, and so on. Within a few years, the education and healthcare facilities that African nations had built up since independence had all but collapsed. The capacity to prevent the spread of diseases has been massively reduced. To compound the problems, under Tony Blair’s Labour government the NHS encouraged graduating doctors and nurses from African medical schools to come and work in the UK, draining these nations of highly qualified and desperately needed personnel. Even before the Ebola crisis there were fewer than 50 doctors working in the public health system in Liberia — a country with a population of more than 4 million people.

Deepening economic crisis has sparked political differences within the ruling classes of many African states, which have often led to civil wars. All of the countries where Ebola is becoming rampant have endured terrible armed conflict.

Over the same period the cost of pharmaceuticals has skyrocketed on international markets, hitting impoverished nations across the world. While there is now talk of an Ebola vaccine, it is clear that this could have been developed much earlier, were the priorities of capitalism different. Anthony Fauci of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has said, “We have been working on our own Ebola vaccine but we never could get any buy-in from the [pharmaceutical] companies.”

So, when it comes to who is responsible for the Ebola crisis, it’s the West, with its combination of economic crisis, neoliberal policies and profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies. What is needed is not just a massive campaign to rid West Africa of Ebola, but huge investment in well-equipped and well-staffed medical facilities across the African continent. African countries are rich in mineral and agricultural wealth. We need to ensure that, rather than Western governments and corporations and their corrupt African ruling class collaborators continuing to exploit and profit from this wealth, it is the working classes of African nations that harness it to establish societies fit for all.