The naked class politics of Ebola

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Centuries of imperialist plunder created the horrendous environmental and economic devastation that has made the Ebola epidemic possible.

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Centuries of imperialist plunder created the horrendous environmental and economic devastation that has made the Ebola epidemic possible.

Cuban doctors and health workers unload boxes of medicines and medical material from a plane upon their arrival at Freetown's airport to help the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone, on Oct. 2, 2014.

Cuban doctors and health workers unload boxes of medicines and medical material from a plane upon their arrival at Freetown’s airport to help the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone, on Oct. 2, 2014.

by James Robb

Just as a glass prism differentiates sunlight into its component colours, corresponding to the different wavelengths, the Ebola crisis ravaging three West African countries has produced three distinct responses, corresponding to the three principal classes of capitalist society.

Ebola is a disease caused by a virus, that is to say, a natural phenomenon. But Ebola is also an epidemic, and the causes and conditions of the epidemic are social, economic, and political rather than natural. Outside of these social and economic conditions, the disease would have been contained or even eliminated long before now. The Ebola catastrophe is as much a product of the global capitalist crisis as are the carnage in Syria and Iraq, the housing shortage in New Zealand, and racist cop murders in the United States; finding a solution to it is just as much a question of the class struggle.

For four centuries West Africa was plundered of its human resources, in the form of the slave trade. Entire kingdoms and cultures were shackled to the hunger of the European powers for slaves, others were ground to dust by the incessant slave raiding. Alongside this came the plunder of the region’s natural resources. The lands along the Gulf of Guinea were called the Grain Coast, Ivory Coast, Gold Coast and Slave Coast – countries named not for the peoples who inhabited them but the commodities which they supplied to the conquering powers. (Côte d’Ivoire retains the name to this day, though its great elephant herds have been reduced to a tiny remnant). Whatever railways, roads and infrastructure the colonial powers built were for the purpose of speeding the extraction of these commodities.

Through the surge of freedom struggles following the Second World War, these countries threw off the shackles of colonial political rule – and in the process produced some of the finest thinkers and fighters the world has ever known. But the economic exploitation didn’t let up for a minute. Nigerian oil, Liberian rubber, Ivorian cocoa, Guinean bauxite still flowed to markets in the former colonial powers, principally France, Britain, and the United States* (and more recently, to China and India) at rock-bottom prices dictated by the buyer.

To the extent that industry has developed, such as the oil industry in Nigeria, it has been at a colossal environmental and human cost. The Niger river delta, a rainforest, wetland and mangrove area of outstanding biodiversity where Nigeria’s oil industry is centred, has been degraded by decades of easily preventable oil spills, the drinking water, farmland, and fisheries of 30 million people poisoned.

The three countries at the centre of the Ebola epidemic are among the most impoverished in the world. The permanent legacy of centuries of uninterrupted plunder is chronic and widespread malnutrition, dirt roads, poor or non-existent sanitation, and one doctor per 100,000 inhabitants. These are the conditions in which Ebola can flourish.

However, Ebola does not present a major threat to the continued extraction of Africa’s wealth. Thus, the bourgeois response to the epidemic has been one of numb indifference to the death and suffering, and its consequent economic dislocations.

For several months after the existence of Ebola was confirmed in the three countries of West Africa, the world bourgeoisie did nothing to assist them to combat the disease and prevent it from spreading. On the contrary, their first actions were to withdraw such minimal assistance schemes that were operating. In July the United States withdrew all its Peace Corps volunteers from the three countries, including those engaged in health education programmes – at the very time when health education programmes were urgently needed. The Connecticut-based Heartt Foundation pulled out its four U.S. doctors from Liberia after the epidemic began. Boston-based Wellbody Alliance did the same.

The burden of providing trained medical personnel was left to a handful of charities, chiefly Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières). MSF has about 250 medical personnel in the three countries.

The Australian government publicly announced their refusal to send medical personnel into the region. “We aren’t going to send Australian doctors and nurses into harm’s way without being absolutely confident that all of the risks are being properly managed. And at the moment we cannot be confident that that is the case,” Prime Minister Tony Abbot said. The government of Israel took a similar stance.

In August British Airways suspended flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone against the protests of those governments. Christopher Stokes, director of Médecins Sans Frontières in Brussels, added: “Airlines have shut down many flights and the unintended consequence has been to slow and hamper the relief effort, paradoxically increasing the risk of this epidemic spreading across countries in west Africa first, then potentially elsewhere. We have to stop Ebola at source and this means we have to be able to go there.”

The bourgeois response became a lot noisier when the first cases of Ebola were diagnosed in the imperialist countries, but the isolationist character of the response remained the same: a policy of protecting those unaffected at the expense of those most directly affected by the epidemic.

Liberian man Thomas Eric Duncan, who developed symptoms in the US six days after arriving from Liberia, was treated as a hostile vector of contagionrather than a human being needing treatment. Dallas County prosecutor publicly discussed laying criminal charges against Duncan if he should survive. The prosecutor’s spokesperson Debbie Denmon said, ““If he ends up being on his deathbed, it would be inhumane to file charges,” she said. “It’s a delicate situation.” Duncan later died.

Under increasing pressure to be seen to be doing something, some imperialist governments began announcing aid packages, mostly limited to money and equipment, and chiding each other for not doing enough. US President Barack Obama declared it to be a ‘security crisis’ – not a health crisis – and promised troops, making it clear they would stay well away from any person who might be infected with the disease. One month later, not one of the 17 special tent-based treatment centres promised by the US is yet operational.

By mid-October, with the crisis growing daily, only a tiny proportion of the money and equipment promised had been delivered. Médecins Sans Frontières spokesperson Christopher Stokes said it was “ridiculous” that volunteers working for his charity were bearing the brunt of care in the worst-affected countries. MSF runs about 700 out of the 1,000 beds available in treatment facilities Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, according to the BBC.  Above all, it was trained medical personnel that was needed – labour – and the bourgeoisie, while it commands vast resources of labour in capitalist industry, came up well short of the need in that regard. “Money and materials are important, but those two things alone cannot stop Ebola virus transmission,” Dr Margaret Chan, director-general at the World Health Organization, said last month. “Human resources are clearly our most important need.”

Ebola panic-mongering. Note that ‘is coming’ means ‘is coming to our shores’

Ebola panic-mongering. Note that ‘is coming’ means ‘is coming to our shores’

If the bourgeois response to the Ebola crisis has been one of indifference, the response of the petty-bourgeoisie has been marked by panic and unscientific speculation. The petty-bourgeoisie is a dependent class, beholden to the big bourgeoisie for its privileges, yet in constant fear of being cast down into the working class, and hence wracked by insecurities.

Panic in the face of this threat has been whipped up not just by big-business press coverage but also by statements from the responsible authorities. For example, Anthony Banbury, chief of the United Nations’ Ebola mission, said in early October that “there is a chance the deadly virus could mutate to become infectious through the air.”

Such claims have no scientific foundation. While viruses do evolve and mutate, no human virus has ever been known to change its mode of transmission. Alarmist predictions and speculations such as this are an attempt to frighten the bourgeoisie into taking action on the epidemic.

Having severed the connection to verifiable fact, the natural extension of such speculations is into the realm of conspiracy theories. The Liberian Daily Observer newspaper ran an article by Liberian-American academic Dr Cyril Broderick claiming that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was deliberately initiated by US military medical researchers who were experimenting on the virus as a possible biological weapon.  In another speculation that wraps several fears into one, Forbes Magazine reported Al Shimkus, a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, as saying that “the Islamic State may already be thinking of using Ebola as a low-tech weapon of bio-terror”, raising the fear that IS members might infect themselves and then deliberately spread the disease to others.

Broderick’s speculation is not totally implausible. The US military and public health authorities, including the Centre for Disease Control which is prominently involved in the Ebola response, have a proven record of carrying out clinical trials and grotesque medical experiments on unknowing human subjects, especially Black people, including one where people in Guatemala were deliberately infected with syphilis without their knowledge. The poisonous legacy of these government crimes has not been forgotten, nor should it ever be. Broderick’s conspiracy theory rests on the fully justified distrust of these institutions, which runs deepest among people of African descent.

But none of these speculations and conspiracy theories is backed up by any verifiable evidence; they remain purely speculative and, like all speculations, essentially idle. By focusing attention on the question ‘what if,’ they become yet another obstacle to facing the known facts of the situation, the urgent question of what is.

The culmination of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois responses to the Ebola crisis, where inaction masquerading as ‘taking action’ combines with isolationism and anti-scientific panic must surely be the policies adopted by the US and UK to carry out body-temperature screening at the airport for passengers arriving from West Africa. Given the nature of the condition, the fact that symptoms can take up to three weeks after the date of infection to appear, such border checks could not possibly detect more than a small fraction of infected travellers crossing a border. At the same time, they will inevitably ‘catch’ great numbers of people with body temperatures raised for other reasons, thereby diverting resources further from where they are needed. David Mabey, professor of communicable diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the screening was a “complete waste of time.”

The working class has only its labour to contribute, yet particularly in the absence of vaccines and cures, that labour is the solution to the crisis. The proletarian response to the Ebola crisis is exemplified by the unselfish actions of the West African health workers, who are carrying out the necessary tasks of caring for the patients, collecting and burying bodies, and educating the population in prevention and containment measures. They do this despite inadequate safety equipment, serious threats to their own health, inadequate pay, and despite sometimes being ostracised in their own communities. The shortages of medical personnel are being overcome by dozens of volunteers.

A Guardian report on the ‘Ebola burial boys’ of Sierra Leone gives a vivid picture of the situation: “One morning, residents in Kailahun [Sierra Leone] woke up to find their only bank closed. Those with cars fled. Life did slowly pick up again, but a state of emergency in July shut down schools. Soldiers poured in to quarantine entire communities and, in these lush farming hills, trade slowed to a trickle.

In desperation, 20 young men signed up for the burial teams, each paid $100 (£61) a month for the task. “Hunger is killing more people than Ebola,” said Abraham Kamara, 21, a fellow digger. They work to rigorous standards enforced by the Red Cross, but pay a heavy price.

“When I’m passing, people I know say, ‘don’t come near me’!” Jusson said. He looked skyward for a moment before continuing: “I try to explain to them. If we don’t volunteer to do this, there’ll be nobody to bury the dead bodies because all of us will be infected.”

The youngest of the so-called burial boys is 17-year-old Andrew Neyuma. “I want to kick Ebola out of this country,” he said, to nods from the others. “Our population is already very small and Ebola wants to reduce it? No way!”

The proletariat is an international class; its watchword is solidarity. Solidarity differs from aid. Solidarity means tying one’s fate to that of the people you are aiding. Given the real personal dangers to the health of those caring for Ebola patients, no matter how careful they are, this distinction is crucial to understanding the different international responses. Solidarity and isolationism are opposites. Solidarity and charity are opposites.

In stark contrast to the response of the imperialist world has been the outstanding solidarity offered by the one country where the working class holds state power: Cuba. When the call went out for volunteer health workers to go to West Africa, fifteen thousand experienced health workers stepped forward, living proof of Che Guevara’s statement: “to be a revolutionary doctor, there must first be a revolution.” This is in a country of 11 million people, under extreme economic pressure from the US blockade, a country which already has 50,000 health workers serving overseas in 66 countries.

103 nurses and 62 doctors selected from among the 15,000 arrived in Sierra Leone in early October, a further 296 will go to Guinea and Liberia shortly. The Cuban government has indicated its willingness to send still more personnel, provided there is enough funding and infrastructure to support them.

This commitment has many precedents. The Cuban people – a large proportion of whom are descended from African slaves – made a similar commitment of to Africa by sending volunteers to defend newly independent Angola from attack by apartheid South Africa in 1975. (Recently declassified documents have revealedthat the US Secretary of State at the time, Henry Kissinger, was so incensed by this that he drew up plans to ‘smash Cuba’ with airstrikes in response.)

Nelson Mandela said of Cuba’s action in Angola, “It was in prison when I first heard of the massive assistance that the Cuban internationalist forces provided to the people of Angola, on such a scale that one hesitated to believe, when the Angolans came under combined attack of South African, CIA-financed FNLA, mercenary, UNITA, and Zairean troops in 1975.

“We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.

“We know also that this was a popular action in Cuba. We are aware that those who fought and died in Angola were only a small proportion of those who volunteered. For the Cuban people internationalism is not merely a word but something that we have seen practiced to the benefit of large sections of humankind.”

Asked about the dangers involved in volunteering to join the medical mission in Sierra Leone, Julio César Gómez Ramírez, a nurse who is going to West Africa with the brigade said, “I’m not afraid. We’ve been taught to help others. Like many of my compañeros, I participated in the war in Angola, and we risked our lives there. This isn’t more difficult.”

On several occasions during this crisis the health workers in Liberia, Nigeria, and elsewhere have engaged in strikes to demand adequate safety protection while they carry out their perilous tasks, and to demand payment of unpaid wages and adequate compensation for the dangers involved in their work. These struggles – along with those of their counterparts in Spain and the United States – are an essential part of advancing the fight against the disease.

A lesson from history is relevant here. A hundred years ago and more, tuberculosis was a killer disease afflicting workers in the advanced capitalist countries in Europe and elsewhere. It is commonly believed that the scourge of tuberculosis was overcome (at least in the imperialist countries) by the development of antibiotic vaccines and cures. This is false; long before the antibiotics were widely used, death rates from tuberculosis had been steadily decreasing. By the time the antibiotics were widely used in the post-World-War-2 world, 90% of the decline in tuberculosis mortality had already been achieved. The reduction had taken place as a consequence of working class struggles for decent housing, sanitation and public health measures, and higher wages – and consequently, better nutrition.

Today the working class is rapidly growing and strengthening in West Africa. Powered chiefly by investment in oil exploitation in Nigeria, Ghana, and offshore along the Gulf of Guinea, including Liberia, a process of social transformation is under way. Amidst the breathtaking environmental and economic devastation of capitalist development, the class is coming into being that alone has the power to drive back not just Ebola but all the social and economic conditions that gave rise to it.

James Robb lives in New Zealand and blogs as A Communist at Large.