More than 1000 people have died in West Africa since February, during the worst epidemic of Ebola since the appearance of the disease in 1976. Ebola is caused by a virus with a very high mortality rate, but a low chance of infection. Sufferers face a painful death within a matter of weeks, and causalities have included dozens of health workers who have been among the first exposed to those who have caught the virus.
By David Elliott, Socialist Party
The virus has broken out in the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, with a smaller outbreak in Nigeria further east. West Africa has been ravaged by civil war, and the health infrastructure is fragile – Liberia has only 51 trained doctors in a population of four million. Médecins Sans Frontières says there are “critical gaps in all aspects of the response”. In Liberia there have been protests against the government’s failure to remove the dead to stop the infection spreading. Whole villages have been cut off from support and left to die.
Every aspect of the disaster is exacerbated by capitalism. Pharmaceutical companies have failed to properly invest in finding an effective treatment, because a disease affecting poor Africans is seen as unprofitable. One US company, Mapp Bio, provided a limited supply of a new drug called ZMapp that may help fight the virus. They have not produced sufficient quantities due to the cost involved, and have not made the details of its production available. Public research into the disease in the West has been limited. In Australia eight researchers at a key CSIRO laboratory in Geelong, working on a vaccine for the current outbreak, are to be fired as a result of federal budget cuts. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has blamed budget cutbacks for preventing them from deploying the number of people they need to assist.
There is no cure for Ebola, but an experimental vaccine is being rolled out by the WHO, and the drug ZMapp has been used on Western aid workers. Profit-based companies like Mapp Bio need to be taken under public control, so that possible breakthrough drugs can be produced and distributed to all people that need them. But even if these treatments turn out to be effective, the fact is that disease outbreaks in poorer countries are always more devastating than elsewhere, even when a cure or vaccine is well known.
Ebola is not an airborne virus, it can be contained with the right equipment. The virus would be stopped in its tracks in a better funded, co-ordinated system. Diseases such as polio have been all but eliminated in the West – but these are still epidemic in poorer countries. Austerity measures and the capitalist economic crisis have created new outbreaks of malaria, dengue fever and West Nile virus in Greece, and rising cases of HIV.
Decades of capitalist development and the intervention of NGOs have failed to solve Africa’s problems. Multinational corporations take billions in profit from African natural resources and labour, while local capitalists enrich themselves at the expense of others. The Socialist Party’s sister groups in Nigeria and South Africa are working to build a united movement of African workers and the poor, to forge a way forward on the basis of public, democratic ownership and investment. Our Nigerian sister group has released a statement placing the blame for the crisis at the foot of the ruling elites across the country, pointing to the need for health research and infrastructure driven by people, not profit. Africa will only be safe from outbreaks such as this when poverty and capitalism are ended.