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Ebola and the politics of plague

2014 October 3
by Paul Vallely

They’re only Africans.  They may be dying from ebola in record numbers but who really cares? Such are the politics of plague. And then there is the politics of war.   In Nigeria the Islamist fanatics of Boko Haram are stoning men to death and pouring petrol on women and burning them alive. Yet where is the talk of air strikes in Africa, let alone boots on the ground?  The murderous terror-mongers of the UnIslamic State in Iraq are deemed to constitute a threat to the streets of the West. But Boko Haram, like ebola, is just another of the apocalyptic four horsemen which for ever stalk that far-away continent of which we know nothing and care less.

Of course no-one says as much in such bald terms, not even in the farage of plain-speaking that characterizes the demagogic rhetoric of our times.   But it is hard to escape the sense that such is the reality of our political priorities.

This is not just the worst single epidemic of ebola in history. The frighteningly contagious disease, which kills up to 90pc of those who contract it, has now slain more than all previous outbreaks put together. Tens of thousands have died, far more than the World Health Organisation’s official figure of 3,300. Its progress is exponential; almost 40 per cent of the deaths have occurred in just the past three weeks.

How odd then that the news is dominated by stories about the one man who has taken the disease from Liberia to the United States. The Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose population are dying in droves, is quoted widely on the “unpardonable” action of the man who took the disease to the world’s richest nation. There are reports about how he will be prosecuted for falsely declaring, when he boarded the plane for Dallas, that he had had no contact with ebola.  In the US there are in-depth accounts of the strict infection-control measures being put in place – the bubble tents, the reporting systems, the high-tech gowns and gloves – that will make sure ebola is swiftly contained.

Meanwhile back in Africa the news is of how, despite promises of Western aid, local health workers are not just lacking gowns and gloves but are even short of paracetamol and mattresses on which the sick can die.

The British government has announced a £100m aid package to build a series of clinics with 700 specialist ebola treatment beds. But that has been overshadowed by the revelation from MPs on the cross-party International Development Committee that British bilateral aid to Sierra Leone and Liberia was previously slashed by a fifth –  doing grave damage to those nations’ health infrastructure. “The weak state of the health system in both countries has greatly reduced the effectiveness of the response to ebola,” the MPs declared.

The final grotesque metaphor for the gap between rich and poor has been the way that ethical concerns about the unproven nature of the experimental serum ZMapp were set aside so the drug could be given to British and American victims of the disease.  But none was made available for Dr Sheik Umar Khan, Sierra Leone’s chief physician, who died treating those struck down by the devastating epidemic.

It was a grim parody of the principles of global distributive justice. But it violated even a utilitarian calculus. Saving the life of Dr Khan would have allowed him to save a greater number of lives than resulted from saving the life of a British nurse or American doctor.

But Dr Khan is merely a citizen of the global South. Such are the economics of international inequality.  Africans are best treated, it appears, by quarantine; the US media has called for travel bans to cut off Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea from the rest of the world. Travellers always get round such interdicts; the only safe way to protect the world is to finance the fight against the disease at its source.

It is not just ebola. In Nigeria ruthless fanatics are lashing, amputating and stoning in the name of a perverted vision of Islam. Once terrorist guerillas they are now holding territory and proclaiming an African “caliphate”. Three million have fled their homes. People are taking refugee on mountain tops. Government troops are retreating saying they cannot match the firepower of the insurgents. A Nigerian air force pilot has just been beheaded on video. The parallels with Iraq are uncanny.

Yet here there are no American airstrikes as there are in Iraq and Syria. The Australian prime minister, Tony Abbot – who has become the first Western leader to deploy troops against what he calls the “murderous death cult” of the UnIslamic State – is not claiming that Australia’s streets, and those of the wider world, need protecting from an “unprecedented terrorist threat” in Nigeria.

Why not?  Because, as with ebola, the deaths of Africans have no strategic, or even symbolic, significance in our global realpolitik. All this is not just deeply unjust. It is politically and epidemiologically myopic.

Ebola is one of the most lethal viruses known to humanity. It kills up to 90 per cent of its victims. There are around 500 new cases each week, according to the World Health Organisation, and the rate of increase is accelerating.  The virus can mutate rapidly because, like AIDS or influenza, its genetic code is a strand of RNA, the less stable cousin of DNA. It could even become airborne. WHO strategists predict 20,000 infections in the next six weeks. The US Centre for Disease Control has warned of as many 1.4 million people infected by January.

But they will just be Africans. So that will be alright then.


Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester.


from The Independent on Sunday






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