Ebola Catastrophe

The Disease Comes from Nature. The Epidemic of Death Comes from Imperialism

October 13, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


The outbreak and spread of the deadly virus Ebola in West Africa is a mushrooming nightmare for thousands and potentially millions of people.

Those contracting Ebola get high fevers and heavy diarrhea, and then, within days, violent bleeding, including from the eyes, ears, and nose.

Ebola is a deadly disease. It is deadly because of the virulence of the Ebola virus. But mostly it's deadly because of the workings of the system of global capitalism, which appropriates and distributes resources and technology in unbearably grotesque ways, ways that condemn the vast majority of humanity to desperate conditions, including hundreds of millions without access to even basic necessities like toilets and safe drinking water, and billions without decent—and eminently providable—health care.

What IS Ebola and How Does It Spread?

According to medical experts, Ebola is spread by direct contact with the blood or other bodily fluids of infected people and animals. Corpses of people who have died of Ebola still contain the virus and can cause it to proliferate.

Volunteers carry patient to health center in Liberia

In West Africa people are dying—untreated—by the thousands because distribution of medical facilities, personnel, resources, and research is grotesquely lopsided in a world dominated by capitalism-imperialism. Above: Volunteers carry a Liberian man suspected of having Ebola to a health center, October 5. Below: Outside the Liberian House of Representatives, people protest against the government’s lack of help with the Ebola virus, September 23, 2014. AP photos

Protest at Liberian House of Representatives, September 23

As of the end of September, over 7,500 people had been infected and more than 3,500 people had died in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Medical experts estimate that at least three times that many are now infected and warn it could spread to other African countries. Cases have now been reported in other countries including the U.S. and Spain. The non-profit organization Save the Children estimates that five people are infected every hour in Sierra Leone. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced computer models that show if the epidemic isn't stopped quickly, as many as 1.4 million people could die by January 2015!

Ebola is not a mysterious new disease. Though an outbreak on this scale and scope has never occurred before, scientists have known about the dangers of Ebola for nearly 40 years—since the virus was first identified in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976.

"This is a disease that's eminently stoppable with basic public health measures, the most basic infection control measures that we generally follow, should be following, in our own hospitals," surgeon and health care policy author Dr. Atul Gawande told Democracy Now! (October 7).

Why Are So Many Dying?

So why are so many being infected? Why are so many getting so sick and dying?

Ebola may arise from nature—but it's the system of imperialism that has made it so deadly to so many.

A top World Health Organization (WHO) official recently stated the epidemic hasn't become so large because of the nature of the virus, but because of the nature of "affected populations," their "health systems," and efforts to control its spread. So what's behind that?

When two American doctors were infected in July, they were airlifted to the U.S., placed in highly advanced health care facilities, extensively tested and monitored, and given the world's most advanced experimental medications—and they lived.

But in West Africa people are dying—untreated—by the thousands? Why?

Because distribution of medical facilities, personnel, resources, and research is grotesquely lopsided in a world dominated by capitalism-imperialism. People in West Africa live in abysmal poverty—Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia are among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 161st, 176th, and 181st, respectively. Many lack basic necessities like sanitation and clean water. In Liberia, 80 percent of people don't have toilets or running water! There is no electricity, there are food shortages, and most people live on less than $1.50 a day. Similar conditions exist in Guinea and Sierra Leone.

All this despite—or rather because of—the fact that imperialism has plundered the continent of Africa for over 500 years—extracting enormous wealth in coffee, diamonds, gold, oil, rare minerals like coltan (for cell phones), bauxite for aluminum, wood (from Africa's irreplaceable rain forests)—and in slaves!

As a result, health care systems are nearly non-existent. Health care spending in Sierra Leone amounts to $96 per person per year. In Liberia it's $65 per person. In the U.S., it's 136 times larger—$8,895 per person. These countries are ruled by despots and gangsters installed or backed by one imperialist power or the other. They cannot and will not mobilize the people to help combat this outbreak—including educating people in the nature of the disease and preventive measures—because their rule is based on controlling and suppressing the masses. Now, the countries' meager health care systems, already devastated by years of civil wars and coups between one rival gang of reactionaries or another, have collapsed.

Most health care workers have had no access to inexpensive medical supplies like masks and disposable gloves, so many have contracted the disease and died. Most hospitals are closed. People are dying from diseases that are treatable. Pregnant women bleed to death delivering babies. Infant mortality rates are rising. Dead bodies of Ebola victims lie in the streets and on treatment center floors—sometimes for days—before they are picked up by the authorities, infecting even more people.

People are told they must get treatment for the sick, but there are no hospital or treatment center beds. There are only a few ambulances in each country to take people to the hospitals and treatment centers that are still open. Private taxis cross the countries as patients try desperately to get help—and accidentally infect other people. Sick people are put in "holding centers" where patients with other diseases are mixed with people who have Ebola, spreading it even more. Others are forced to fend for themselves on the streets.

Vicious Repression Instead of Medical Care

People are hungry and angry. Governments in the region, backed up by the U.S., France, and Britain, have responded with force. Quarantines and curfews have been imposed at the point of a gun. In late August, Liberian troops opened fire on a crowd protesting a quarantine in West Point township and hit a 15-year-old boy named Shakie Kamara. He bled in the street for half an hour until an ambulance came, and he died the next day. People are being isolated from others and left to die until the epidemic "burns itself out."

There are no stores of advanced testing equipment and there are extremely limited supplies of the experimental medicine (ZMapp) that may have helped save the lives of the two American doctors (and none in West Africa). Why is this the case? One reason: While billions are poured into developing medicines for those living in imperialist countries, next to nothing is invested in vaccines for Ebola and other "tropical" diseases because it wouldn't be profitable to sell in Africa. WHO reports that what it calls "neglected tropical diseases" such as dengue fever affect more than a billion people in the world and kill up to 500,000 a year. A study commissioned by WHO found that between 1974 and 2004, of the 1,500 new drugs that were made available worldwide, only 10 targeted these tropical illnesses.

The capitalist-imperialist system is no more "humane" and "caring" than it was at its capitalist birth 500 years ago—when Africans were being hunted down, captured, shackled, and sold into slavery!

Intolerable... and UNNECESSARY Suffering

What makes the indescribable suffering unfolding before our eyes in West Africa so intolerable is that it's unnecessary. The world does NOT have to be this way. The problem isn't human nature—it's the nature of the system. Capitalism is an economic system and a political order enforcing it that is driven by the competitive accumulation of profit. This dynamic leads to and takes place through an enormous chasm between a handful of developed imperialist countries and the bulk of humanity living in countries exploited and shackled by imperialism. That's why the enormous storehouse of medical knowledge and the mind-boggling development of medical technology are strangled within the confines of private property and profit-making.

Under a different economic and social system, things can—and have!—been radically different. Between 1949 and 1975, China was a revolutionary socialist state, led by Mao Zedong. It had been ravaged by centuries of feudalism and then over 100 years of imperialist subjugation and plunder. So when the revolutionaries took power, the vast majority of people had no access to medical care, and there was very little medical technology available. But the revolutionary state, led by Mao, was guided by the principle that people are the most precious thing. They made it a top priority to educate and mobilize people to develop and apply low-tech methods to attack terrible and debilitating diseases that had tormented people for centuries, like malaria and various water-borne diseases.

Later as socialist China developed, tremendous advances were made in medical treatment, because research and development were not constrained by maximizing profit in competition with other capitalists. (For more, see "You Don't Know What You Think You 'Know' About... The Communist Revolution and the REAL Path to Emancipation: Its History and Our Future. ")

Today, nearly 40 years after socialism's defeat in China, technology, especially medical technology, has, in many respects, advanced tremendously. Yet here we are, witnessing preventable death and needless horrors that evoke the world of centuries ago—all because capitalism stands in the way of utilizing the knowledge and technology humanity has developed.


This and the accompanying article ("Isn't the U.S. Helping Now?") were drawn from contributions from Revolution readers, including "Letter from a reader, Ebola and the Moral Bankruptcy of Capitalism," August 24, 2014.)

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