Ebola epidemic and African underdevelopment

On Wednesday, August 20, riots broke out in a slum neighborhood of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia in West Africa.  During the weekend, local residents had carried out a raid on an isolation screening facility for victims of the Ebola epidemic sweeping Liberia and its neighbors, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Some locals were angry because they thought that people from outside their area were being brought in to be treated for Ebola. Seventeen patients were scattered and raiders walked off with some very dangerous items including blood and vomit stained bed sheets. As Ebola is a viral disease that kills by causing massive hemorrhages, and since it is spread by contact with blood and other bodily fluids of infected people, this incident has caused great alarm regionally, and led to a quarantine of the entire neighborhood.

So far the official death toll for this epidemic in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria (where a few cases have occurred) is around 1,350 but could be much higher because authorities do not know what is going on in remote communities. It could also expand geometrically; and as it is public health facilities are near collapse. Health care providers have been killed by the epidemic and the region does not have any to spare (two infected U.S. medical personnel were brought back to the United States are recuperating). Ebola is known to kill well over half the people it infects. Local health facilities cannot afford things like special protective suits.

Some local conditions are cited as aggravating factors. People usually care for sick relatives at home, which means that they touch them and come into contact with blood, feces, mucous and sweat, all of which can transmit the virus to the caregiver. Dead bodies are, by tradition, washed and handled by their relatives, another source of contagion. Many people in the region supplement their meager incomes by hunting wild animals. As there are indications that large fruit-eating bats can be Ebola virus carriers, hunting them for meat is terribly dangerous.

The Ebola crisis in West Africa is not the result of the virulent virus alone. It is also the natural outcome of Africa policies carried out, in collaboration with local elites, by transnational corporations and the governments of wealthy industrialized countries.

These are countries of fabulous wealth, whose people live in grinding poverty. This is the pattern for most of sub-Saharan Africa.

Guinea is vastly rich in aluminum ores and other subsoil items, Liberia in timber and rubber and Sierra Leone in diamonds, gold, cocoa beans and titanium. These are developed by multinational corporations, extracted by means of low paid local labor, and exported to the great enrichment of the corporations. But most of the population still lives by subsistence agriculture and sees little benefit from this commodities export system.

Western corporations are notoriously loath to invest in building up the physical (roads, ports, electricity grids) and human (educational and health care) infrastructure of their poor host countries unless it directly helps their bottom lines (China does better). None of these countries has been able to build up a manufacturing sector, even through foreign direct investment, in no small measure because of lack of things such as roads and electrical generation.

Hence, the poverty: Liberia is the third or fourth poorest country in the world by Per Capita Gross Domestic Product. Guinea and Sierra Leone are not far behind. The countries themselves, not just their inhabitants, are poor and as a result have not been able to consolidate strong state apparatuses. This means that they have not been able to build infrastructure with their own resources, or provide adequate human services (potable water, education, health care) to keep their people alive and healthy without a heavy reliance of on outside, with the usual strings attached.

They have not been able to protect themselves from outside economic and political pressures or even their own predatory elites. The situations of Liberia and Sierra Leone have been particularly dire, with bloody civil wars in the 1990s decimating their health care and educational systems. People do not trust their governments, including health authorities.

World Health Organization statistics tell the story: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have sky-high infant and under-five mortality rates. Malnutrition is endemic. And the health care systems, even pre-Ebola, are utterly unable to cope. Guinea had one physician per 10,000 people, Liberia and Sierra Leone even fewer. Guinea and Liberia had about 3 hospital beds per 10,000 people, and Sierra Leone less than one. Compare this with socialist Cuba, with 59 doctors and 49 hospital beds per 10,000 inhabitants.

The impact of the Ebola epidemic may have severe economic consequences, with a combination of fear and government “cordon sanitaire” policies depriving people of food supplies and driving up prices.

Photo: Health workers with buckets, as part of their Ebola virus prevention protective gear, at an Ebola treatment center in Monrovia, Liberia, Aug. 18. Liberia’s armed forces were given orders to shoot people trying to illegally cross the border from neighboring Sierra Leone, which is closed to stem the spread of Ebola, local newspaper Daily Observer reported. Abbas Dulleh/AP

 Guinea, officially the Republic of Guinea, is a country in West Africa. Formerly known as French Guinea, it is today sometimes called Guinea-Conakry to distinguish it from its neighbour Guinea-Bissau and the Republic of Equatorial Guinea. Wikipedia

 Sierra Leone, officially the Republic of Sierra Leone, is a country in West Africa that is bordered by Guinea to the northeast, Liberia to the southeast, and the Atlantic Ocean to the southwest. Wikipedia

 Liberia, officially the Republic of Liberia, is a country in West Africa bordered by Sierra Leone to its west, Guinea to its north and Ivory Coast to its east. It covers an area of 111,369 square kilometres and is home to about 4 million people. Wikipedia





Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.