The Other Side of Ebola: Capitalism’s Weak Resistance to Ebola

Originally published on teleSUR

WHO director Margaret Chan stated that, “The (Ebola) outbreak spotlights the dangers of the world’s growing social and economic inequalities.”

Ebola has been one of this years biggest news stories, and now that it has hit U.S. soil, fever pitch has reached new levels. The “land of the free” and other nations like Australia are placing draconian restrictions on health workers and those traveling from West African nations.

But what is not being talked about is the pre-conditions that have set the stage up for the global outbreak of the Ebola virus. Missing from the coverage is how liberal capitalism has in part created an environment in which this outbreak could happen, and will allow more to follow.

“With 24 percent of the world’s infectious disease burden, Africa has only 3 percent of the world’s health professionals, with massive shortages of physicians, nurses, technicians, health administrators and planners.”

Extractive Colonial Capitalism in Africa

The ground zero of Ebola is West Africa, where capital is still exploiting the corruption and political instability of the continent to extract profits.

Europeans stole free labor in the form of slaves for Africa. Though that has officially ended, primary products from diamonds to gold, bauxite to oil, are still extracted (stolen) at the lowest possible price without regard for the human conditions on the ground. That is the capitalist profit motive. Overwhelmingly, the majority of Africans are left out of the global free trade wealth-creating machine that is fueled by their own natural resources.

It is no coincidence that the three countries worst hit by Ebola are some of the poorest in the world. In GDP per capita, Sierra Leone ranks 161st, Guinea 176th and Liberia at 181st out of 185 countries ranked. They have been wracked by war, and by extractive industries, which have never failed to turn a profit.

But although these nations are desperately poor, they are rich in natural resources, that instead of going to the population have been exploited by international corporations, backed up by imperialist nations such as the United States and Britain.

Liberia is essentially a de facto United States colony, and has vast iron ore and palm oil resources, and Bridgestone has operated the world’s largest rubber plantation there since 1926. Sierra Leone, a former British colony, is a top-ten diamond producer, with large reserves of rutile, a titanium-based ore. Guinea, a former French colony, has iron ore, diamonds, uranium, gold and an astonishing half of the world’s total reserves of bauxite, from which aluminum is derived. The Australian-Canadian firm Rio Tinto Alcan and Dadco Alumina of Germany dominate bauxite extraction in Guinea.

One enlightening example is that of Firestone/Bridgestone which is one of the largest companies in Liberia, exploiting its rubber trees. In 1926 it negotiated a million-acre concession at six cents an acre, for ninety years, sending the Liberian rubber into U.S. cars, and profits into U.S. pockets. It promised 350,000 jobs, but never created more than a quarter of that number. For decades, plantation workers demanded better pay, a high school, and medical care.

Scholar Immanual Wallerstein has explained a way in which to understand the exploitative relationship that the West, or as he calls it “core nations” have with continents like Africa, which he labels “periphery” nations, related to their placement in the capitalist world economy. Periphery continents like Africa have traditionally lacked strong central governments and have been controlled by imperialist interests, meaning that they export raw materials to the core nations. The core then expropriated much of the capital surplus generated by the periphery through unequal trade relations. Which in other words has meant that the

African Healthcare under Capitalist Conditions

One of the multiple negative outcomes of the plundering of wealth from the continent has meant that governments struggle to fund health systems. As the author of Public Health in Africa, Jennifer Cooke highlights, “With 24 percent of the world’s infectious disease burden, Africa has only 3 percent of the world’s health professionals, with massive shortages of physicians, nurses, technicians, health administrators and planners.” The combined health care spending of the three countries is only US$900 million, a pitiful US$45 per head.

In Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, local health care systems were already horribly weak, and under the strain of the epidemic have all but collapsed. In Sierra Leone, the nation’s only large childrens’ hospital was forced to close after a child was diagnosed as suffering from Ebola. In Liberia, there are only a few hundred treatment beds available, meaning that most victims stay home and are cared for by family members, who then become infected. Even before the current crisis killed many of Liberia’s health professionals, there were fewer than fifty doctors working in the public health system in a country of more than four million people, most of whom live far from the capital. That’s one physician per 100,000 people, compared to 240 per 100,000 in the United States or 670 in Cuba.

As health professor Paul Farmer wrote, “The fact is that weak health systems, not unprecedented virulence or a previously unknown mode of transmission, are to blame for Ebola’s rapid spread.”

This is addition to West Africa losing close to 90 percent of its forests to farming and mining, mostly to foreign corporations, as scientists show that there is a direct link between deforestation and the increasing frequency and severity of Ebola outbreaks.

The poor health systems aren’t just an outcome of poor economic growth and natural resource exploitation, however. In the past three decades, all three countries have been ravaged by civil wars, coups and ethnic massacres, much of it driven by ruling elites fighting to control sources of raw materials to sell to the giant Western corporations amid increasingly difficult economic conditions on the world market.

Why Wasn’t A Vaccine Created Earlier?

Another devastating outcome of the capitalist market on Ebola, is the vaccine. Daniel Bausch, a professor at Tulane University researching Ebola has said that the reason that one does not exist, is not in the scientific difficulty of developing one, but “the economics of drug development.” The large profit motivated “Pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to pour research and development dollars into curing a disease that surfaces sporadically in low-income, African countries. They aren’t likely to see a large pay-off at the end,” he added.

 “The fact is that weak health systems, not unprecedented virulence or a previously unknown mode of transmission, are to blame for Ebola’s rapid spread.”

For a vaccine to become profitable, and hence more likely to be made under private capitalist conditions, the Ebola pandemic would need to provide “customers” to make it profitable. But if the amount of people who contract it is relatively small, and those who do do not have the capital to pay for the vaccine, it is less likely to be made under market conditions.

And on the ground in Africa, the nations hit by Ebola all lack strong states which could be key in two different ways. Firstly, it is nearly impossible to have an even semi-functioning capitalist market without a strong state, but more importantly there will be no research institutions or state run medical programs that can develop and distribute preventions, cures and drugs that benefit the population, not the market.

United States Economist Jeffry Sachs in a recent interview noted that he tried to raise funds for Liberian health workers, saying that “the answer from all of the international agencies is, ‘Oh, there’s no money here, anyway. Liberia is not much of a priority. Come back in the next funding cycle.’”

The Economy Should Serve Health, Not Health Serve the Economy

The multiple effects of centuries of exploitation and intervention, exacerbated by the global financial crisis, local factors such as weak governments have created the conditions for the present health catastrophe. And one of the ironies of the West’s new found paranoia about Ebola is that it is a virus which may be coming back to haunt them, their slim chance of contraction of the virus has been facilitated by our increasingly unequal global economy. It has been the lack of resistance by the global economic machine which has been just as important in the pandemic as the weakness of the human immune system.

True reform would do the opposite of what a capitalist system advocates. Put patients and the public’s health ahead of financial concerns, which at this point in time seems like too much a challenge. Healthcare not only depends on social and economic equality, but thinking about the contradiction between capitalism and health and how this can be overcome. In general, policies should be implemented that make economic policy serve the goal of making everyone as healthy as possible, rather than making people as rich as possible.


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