The Ebola river is a tributary of the Zaire river and it gives its name to the deadly virus discovered in 1976. It was discovered after the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp received a sample from a Belgian nun who had died, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and who had been diagnosed with yellow fever.
But when Peter Piot discovered the new virus, he never imagined it could spread to become today’s world-wide epidemic and what he calls the ‘humanitarian crisis’ it is now. He blames the spread of the virus on a ‘perfect storm’ of troubles in West Africa – decades of civil wars, health services barely worthy of the name, limited medical resources and a slow and sluggish global response.
He recently called on the international community to increase its fight against the virus: “We need to do more, because as long as the epidemic in West Africa is not brought under control, this is not only a disaster for the countries concerned, but a source of infections all over the world.”
There is little doubt at this stage that there has been incompetence all over the globe in dealing with the Ebola outbreak, but it highlights perhaps, more than anything, the unequal nature of our world. According to the World Health Organisation, in a document obtained by Associated Press, “Nearly everyone involved in the outbreak response failed to see some fairly plain writing on the wall”, and it blames the WHO’s ‘botched attempts’ to stop the spread of Ebola on ‘incompetent staff’ and a ‘lack of information’.
The document also points out that in Africa, the WHO offices have been subject to ‘politically motivated appointments’ since Dr Luis Sambo, the WHO’s regional director in Africa, does not report to Margaret Chan, the WHO boss in Geneva.
But whomever is at fault, the reality now is that this cat is out of the bag and the question becomes how we as a country and planet respond.
Sadly, the Ebola outbreak is one of those media stories that ultimately comes and goes. Fueled by mainstream media which can’t resist stories that claim “We’re all going to die”, it is now beginning to gain a life as a media virus, as well as a real-life one. It won’t really start in Ireland until we have our first case, but by then it will have become the major talking point in the health sphere.
That’s particularly sad because the real causes of Ebola – as Bob Geldof has noted – is that too many of the world’s people live in extreme poverty and in Africa, because of the massive disparities in wealth, corruption is rife. Bob was careful not to blame African corruption (that might be a bit too close to the bone when one thinks of where all that money raised for Live Aid went, and to whom) but there’s no question that it was a factor in the spread of Ebola, at least in its initial stages.
When the Ebola crisis has ended though, we can be sure of one thing – the world will not respond to the issue that created it in the first place – the massive inequality that exists in the world. It’s a cheap shot to blame the US for everything bad that happens in the world, but there is no doubt that American thinking has a profound influence on what the rest of the world does.
President Obama has said – to placate Republicans – that he may appoint a ‘Czar’ to oversee the administration’s response to Ebola and that he is open to the idea of a travel ban, but one can say with certainty that when this is all over, the US will do little to help African countries overcome their real problems of poverty, corruption and conflict.
It was much the same when the AIDS epidemic began. It started with widespread panic and fear and the suggestion of wildly improbable policies which would have restricted people’s human rights, and then settled down once people understood what the disease was, how it was contracted and the actual, as opposed to the supposed risks.
It didn’t stop politicians and public figures blaming gay people for the disease (or later, Haitians) because that’s what people do during these international public health panics. This time around, it’s the fault of incompetent and corrupt Africans, or incompetent healthcare workers in the US, or the slow response from the US federal government.
The one truism that remains from the AIDS crisis is that when an epidemic breaks out, we can see a response based on the value we place on different human lives. We all do it, and the media lends a glad hand. A couple of thousand deaths in Africa is not such a big deal. One death in America, and suddenly it’s top of the news agenda.
Where you die is important. Who you are is important. In the past we have faced threats from SARS, bird flu and swine flu. Now Ebola has infected over 7,000 worldwide and because of the lack of diagnoses, the numbers who have died from it may be double or triple the estimated 3,000 people so far.
But Ebola was identified almost 40 years ago. It’s not like we haven’t had time to come up with a vaccine. We didn’t bother, of course, because it was seen at the time as a tropical disease limited to a few African countries. Equally, we didn’t respond to those other threats until they began to affect people in the West.
Fear is a powerful force. It cause otherwise rational people to behave in extraordinary and illogical ways. The fear of contracting Ebola is disproportionate to the risk, yet that doesn’t re-assure people. And should the virus spread further in the West, it is likely that it will dominate media and water-cooler conversations for as long as it lasts, without having any effect on governmental policies towards creating a more equal, and therefore safer world.
And when it’s all over, we’ll go back to ignoring the problems of people who live far away and just hope that we won’t be reminded too often that for most people in the world, the idea of living without fear of fatal diseases is just a Western construct that has no relevance in their daily lives.
For more on my thoughts about Ebola click here.
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