Ebola crisis: Cuba shows the world how it is done

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By Rupen Savoulian

November 24, 2014 -- Antipodean Atheist, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Margaret Chan, was speaking about the terrible crisis afflicting the poor West African countries Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, namely, the growing outbreak of the Ebola virus disease. This condition is a fatal disease, transmitted from undomesticated animals to people, and is transmitted by contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.

The Ebola virus attacks the body’s immune system, undermining the latter and preventing the body from detecting the disease. Currently there is no vaccine, and treatments of infected people are basically supportive, that means helping the person’s immune system recover and fight the disease, but without actually attacking the original virus. This disease has been known since the early 1970s. The 2014 outbreak though, is the most complex epidemic since the discovery of the virus, and the challenges facing health care workers with the current outbreak are severe.

Dr Chan, in addressing this public health issue, made a sharp and observant comment about why the current Ebola outbreak is so severe:

Speaking to the WHO’s regional committee for Africa in Benin, she said: “Ebola emerged nearly four decades ago. Why are clinicians still empty-handed, with no vaccines and no cure?”

She continued: “Because Ebola has historically been confined to poor African nations. The R&D incentive is virtually non-existent. A profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay.”

You can read her comments here in the Independent newspaper.  Dr Chan criticised the pharmaceutical industries lack of research and development into an Ebola vaccine, stating that with the lack of a profitable market, the drug companies were simply uninterested in investing money and resources into an Ebola vaccine project. Not only was there a lack of investment in vaccine research, but also a complete lack of investment in public health-care structures that would have heavily mitigated against the severity and scope of the current Ebola outbreak.

For-profit medical system

Dr Chan, as chief of the WHO, is in the best position to understand the scale of the Ebola outbreak. She pointedly blamed the real culprit for this crisis; the for-profit medical system.

The Ebola virus has been known for approximately 40 years, yet no vaccine has been developed because it was not profitable to do so. The pharmaceutical companies responsible for medical research into vaccines decided that lacking a market, the development of an Ebola vaccine was not worthwhile.

This demonstrates the irrationality of an economic system that subordinates human welfare to the corporate bottom-line. The private ownership of pharmaceutical production and health care has meant that without a required vaccine, thousands of people have suffered needlessly, and preventable fatalities have occurred because of this disease. The for-profit medical system subordinates the physical and mental well-being of people to the pursuit of higher corporate profits.

As Dr Chan noted, Ebola has historically impacted the poor West African nations, namely Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. These countries, while gaining formal political independence during the wave of decolonisation through the 1950s and 1960s, have remained in an economically dependent relationship with their former colonial overlords. Economic colonialism never truly ended for these nations, as they provide the raw materials and human labour power for giant multinational corporations headquartered in transatlantic countries.

The deleterious impact of the Ebola virus, as well as other vaccine-preventable diseases such as Dengue and Lassa fever, has been magnified by the poverty and immiseration in which these nations find themselves. Imperialism has plundered West Africa, and Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea still bear the brunt of the ravages of economic colonialism. The main imperial powers – the United States, Britain and France respectively – are responsible for a policy of malignant neglect, extracting the mineral wealth from these nations while leaving the majority of their populations in a state of abject poverty.

The nations of West Africa are among the poorest in the world. For instance, Sierra Leone has a GDP of 4.9 billion (US) dollars. In comparison, the former colonial power of that nation, Britain, has a GDP of 2.52 trillion (US) dollars. Liberia, with its GDP of 1.95 billion (US) dollars, is dwarfed by its imperial master the United States, whose GDP stands at 16.8 trillion (US) dollars. These economic statistics translate into massive inequalities for the people of West Africa, most of whom live in fetid, disease-ridden overcrowded slums without access to basic services. (By the way, the statistics above come from the World Bank). Sierra Leone’s main export is – diamonds, accounting for 63 percent of that country’s total exports, which could contribute to the wealth of that nation. However, Sierra Leone’s people remain dirt poor. One wonders where all that wealth is going.

West Point is an administrative district of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. It is home to 75 000 people. The poor sanitation and hygiene conditions of the district have been known for years. For instance, West Point has an inadequate water service, with only four public toilets – to be shared between 75 000 people. The beach serves as the lavatory, provides the drinking water, and fish from that water are consumed. Disease is rife, with outbreaks of cholera, tuberculosis and diarrhoea. These appalling conditions have been known for years. Yet the Liberian government and its colonial supervisor, the United States, have never addressed this serious public health issue. It is no wonder that a serious epidemic has spread so rapidly in west Africa, infecting thousands and claiming more than 7000 lives at last count. It is time to ask why the Ebola outbreak, the most serious medical and humanitarian emergency in years, was missed by the relevant authorities.

Racist hysteria, xenophobia and panic

The reaction of the United States and other imperialist countries to the Ebola outbreak reveals a great deal about their domestic politics. In the United States, there has been an outpouring of racist hysteria, xenophobia and panic about the threat of immigrants, particularly from West Africa, swamping the domestic population and spreading this disease. In fact, fear itself has become an epidemic. As thousands of west Africans were afflicted, there was hardly a murmur of concern. However, that all changed when one Liberian, Thomas Eric Duncan, was diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. Then, the corporate media went into full hysteria mode, as Nicole Colson from the US Socialist Worker explained:

The popular concern about Ebola is understandable given its frightening symptoms and lethal outcomes in West Africa, where thousands of people are infected. But that only makes the sensationalized frenzy of the cable news networks even more appalling, as they peddle lies and fear about the risk to anyone in the city of Dallas, where Thomas Duncan, the patient in question, was staying.

And they don’t stop with Dallas, either. Right-wingers speculated about how supposedly lax U.S. border security could be putting us all at risk. “We have a border that is so porous, Ebola or ISIS–or Ebola on the backs of ISIS–could come through our border,” Fox News’ Greg Gutfield hyperventilated, as a red “Alert” logo flashed on screen.

Proposals for “tough action” were equally frantic: Halt all flights to and from Western Africa! Don’t let anyone with a passport from a Western African country into the U.S.! Build a “double fence, triple fence, whatever it takes!” according windbag Charles Krauthammer, captured in The Daily Show‘s brilliant montage of the right-wing freak show.

The nurses who treated Duncan were themselves subjected to hysterical outbursts, even though they received proper medical attention and have subsequently been cleared of the disease. The main problem in the United States was not the Ebola virus itself, but hysteria and xenophobia, fuelled by political opportunism of the lowest kind.

Anti-immigrant politicians and right-wing crusaders have howled their prejudices over the air waves, as Liberians, and west African migrants in the US, have been subjected to racial attacks and derision as they go about their lives. The stigma of infection has done as much damage to people’s lives as the disease itself. Liberians in the United States have organised themselves and fought back; they have taken on the discrimination and hate they face with calm dignity. They are Liberians, not a virus.

Professor Priscilla Ward, writing for The Conversation, stated it plainly; the outbreak narrative adopted by the major corporate media, spreads unwarranted panic, with headlines screaming ‘apocalypse’. We need to break this destructive cycle of hysteria-stigma-more-panic by adopting a responsible course of action. As Professor Ward states, “We are all human. We are all susceptible. More importantly, we are all responsible.”

There is one measure that the United States has taken, one that significantly impacts the lives of the west African people, a measure that has gotten lost amid the maelstrom of hysteria and panic. The US has deployed troops to west Africa, drawn from military personnel that make up AFRICOM, the military command structure and African military footprint of the United States in that continent. President Obama insisted that a militarised response was the correct one, because the United States needed to maintain its vital interests in that part of the world. The deployment of US troops is not new, but the latest response in an ongoing competition in Africa for resources and markets by the imperialist states. Note that the first priority of the US empire is to protect its flow of minerals and profits, not the alleviation of human suffering, an affliction that could be prevented with the deployment of medical resources. The retired chief of the British army, General Sir David Richards, even proposed that NATO send troops and take command of the operation to fight Ebola in west Africa.

Cuba shows the way

There is one country, with only a fraction of the finances and resources at the disposal of the United States, that has sent doctors, health-care workers and professionals straight to the afflicted regions, and has lead the world in its medical international humanism; socialist Cuba.

While the United States (and Britain) have sent troops, Cuba has sent thousands of doctors around the world, and has led the world in disaster management. Cuba actually has medical brigades, composed of medical personnel, equipped with the skills and logistics of tackling medical emergencies – all financed by the state. Back in September, the Cuban health ministry announced that it would send 165 doctors, nurses and experts in infectious diseases to west Africa. This measure was praised by the chief of the WHO, Dr Margaret Chan, when she stated that:

This is “the biggest commitment of personnel to the health crisis so far by any country,” said Chan. Even as some countries have committed funds or small treatment centers, she stresses, “The thing we need most of all is people, health care workers.”

Cuba possesses exactly what West Africa needs right now – a well-trained, organised and efficient health-care system. This is the judgement of the senior editor of Medicc Review, Conner Gorry. She explains in her article, published in the online magazine Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal:

The Henry Reeve Brigade, as it’s known, was established in 2005 by more than 1500 Cuban health professionals trained in disaster medicine and infectious disease containment; built on 40 years of medical aid experience, the volunteer team was outfitted with essential medicines and equipment and prepared to deploy to US regions ravaged by Hurricane Katrina (the offer was rejected by the Bush administration). Today, Cuba’s Henry Reeve Brigade is the largest medical team on the ground in west Africa battling Ebola.

Cuba’s government has directly offered to cooperate with the United States in joint efforts to combat the Ebola outbreak. Thus far, apart from low-level discussions and sporadic communications, the United States has not replied.

Cuba’s leading role in fighting the Ebola outbreak, its experience in emergency management and the organised response of its medical system has thus far been largely ignored, a telling comment on the priorities of the major corporate media.

This has implications for Australia, where the federal government is intent on pursuing the full privatisation of health care. The for-profit health-care system has failed to respond to the medical disaster of our times, and is responsible for the inadequate conditions that have worsened the impact of the epidemic. The country with the state-funded and planned medical system has demonstrated to the world how to respond in a humane way, saving lives and offering solidarity.

There is one head of state who immediately recognised the seriousness of the Ebola outbreak, urging the relevant international and local authorities to act decisively to save lives. He stated that:

A dreadful epidemic is advancing today on our fraternal peoples of Africa, and threatening us all. A high number of cases have been diagnosed with Ebola and many people have perished from the disease in several countries, including two outside the African continent.

This poses a huge challenge to humanity, one that should be met with utmost urgency. The action of the international community as a whole, under the leadership of the World Health Organization, the Pan American Health Organization and the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, is much needed.

That was Cuba's President Raul Castro. Read his whole speech here.