Brisbane 15th September 2014 (Alochonaa): Last week’s ‘Ebola scare’ on the Gold Coast in Australia highlighted yet again the dangers and fears associated with this virus, and why governments around the world, particularly in the affluent West need to start treating the ongoing epidemic in West Africa more seriously. Not surprisingly such efforts should go beyond the rather muted responses seen from Australian and Queensland officials who appeared to be more concerned with the impact on tourism that the scare might have had, and which have been replicated in other Western nations who suffered similar scares. Indeed as the World Health Organisation now warns of over 20,000 possible cases with over half of these ending in fatalities before the epidemic in West Africa might be brought under control, it is not the West but rather nations such as Cuba who are leading the fight against the insidious virus, a situation that is damming on government priorities.
Ebola – The Virus
Ebola was first identified in 1976 due to two simultaneous outbreaks in Nzara, Sudan and Yambuku in then Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). Yambuku incidentally is situated on the Ebola River, which gave its name to the virus. To date, 5 distinct species of Ebola have been discovered. The current epidemic is called by ‘Zeebov’ or the ‘Zaire strain’, which is the most deadly to humans, and has been responsible for the majority of previous outbreaks.
Transmission of Ebola occurs through contact with infected bodily fluids, secretions or the organs of an infected animal or person. It is thought that the disease is transferred to humans through the consumption of infected bushmeat in Africa or the handling of infected animals such as primates, fruit bats, forest antelope and porcupines. Once in a human host however, the primary method of transmission for the virus is human to human contact.
Due to the way it infects, health workers themselves are among the most at risk, especially in developing nations such as those currently experiencing the epidemic in West Africa. This can be seen with the infection and death of doctors who have specialised in this virus during the current epidemic. In fact over 10% of those who have died so far have been health workers themselves, which has further weakened the possible response from the governments in West Africa.
Due to the lack of adequate infectious disease control, the epidemic is now considered to be out of control. Further complicating matters on the ground for health workers is widespread misinformation and fear amongst the local population, with many believing that the health workers themselves are causing the epidemic. This fear also does not help the governments in West Africa in educating their citizens on how Ebola is spread. Government officials in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone report that these fears are preventing them from dissuading their people in the more rural areas from continuing traditional funeral practices of relatives and friends touching the deceased, which in turn spreads the disease.
Ebola can be difficult to contain due to it possessing a highly-variable incubation period, during which victims can be infectious although not symptomatic. Once symptomatic according to the World Health Organisation victims will experience ‘fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding.’ In laymen’s terms, those afflicted from Ebola begin to bleed from the inside out as the virus causes the immune system to attack the body’s circulatory system. This process also leads to the most publicised symptom of Ebola, with victims appearing to bleed from their eyeballs. However as a virus strain possessing RNA rather than our own DNA, it is highly mutable, with each new case presenting a chance for Ebola to acquire new abilities. During this epidemic alone 300 new Ebola mutations have been recorded. More startling yet is that with the Ebola Reston variant, that attacks pigs, there is historical evidence of a remote chance that Ebola could become airborne, with catastrophic results.
Why aren’t we doing more?
Obviously this disease is something that governments would like to see contained. So why aren’t they investing more into the containment of the current epidemic like Medicines Sans Frontiers continually lobbies for? Put simply, its democratic and financial priorities. Governments in the West simply do not care enough to do more than what is already being done. While they will give token support to Non-Government Organisations on the ground or through the World Health Organisation, it appears any official response will only come into it when one of their nationals are afflicted. This has been seen with the US sending a 25 bed field hospital with no staff to Liberia, who has a shortage of over 700 beds for Ebola patients in the capital, Monrovia, alone, or the European Union’s pledge of 500,000 euros, in comparison to the response when Western citizens have themselves become infected.
The reasons for this are largely economic and political. In a world with multiple issues, a rampant epidemic in developing countries of little infrastructure and even less sanitation is considered by most Western governments as ‘too hard’. This has been increased with the recent Global Financial Crises and ongoing programs of austerity which have led to governments of western democracies to be increasingly worried large costs about the electoral cycle and weary of anything that won’t produce ‘warm fuzzy’ feelings inside of that cycle, or play to the more hawkish elements of their constituencies, thus generating votes. This is why a fifth of all budget cuts in the recent Australian budget came from the Foreign Aid budget and why similar cuts have been made elsewhere.
The other reason why Western governments are doing very little when it comes to the Ebola epidemic threatening to kill 10,000 people or more by this time next year, and has already killed 2500, is that you can’t bomb a virus. In the age of humanitarian intervention, the Responsibility to Protect, and smart bombs, the base instinct for Western governments is to deal with emergent issues of humanitarian importance through military action and/or sanctions, both of which produce great footage for cable news providers and clearly shows their constituencies that they are being tough.
These options are not available in dealing with the Ebola virus, beyond the militaries of the afflicted nations working to quarantine infected regions. The very real and hard process of building health infrastructure capable of containing the epidemic in a place where it only exists marginally just doesn’t generate enough buzz amongst the wider society, especially with the costs attached, and sending doctors on mass to another country when health care services, or lack thereof is a contentious issue at home, further weakens the resolve to do something. Therefore its easy to see why Western citizens themselves will pressure their governments to do something about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria while at the same ignoring the humanitarian disaster unfolding in West Africa. This situation has led to some, like Jonas Schmidt-Chansait, of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, to controversially claim that the containment fight in Sierra Leone and Liberia has already been lost, and that we will now be forced to wait for the virus to ‘burn itself out’ infecting nearly the entire population of the two countries and killing around half, or 5 million people in the process.
So What Can We Do?
We in the West can do a number of things to help contain the virus where it is, and more long-term help to ensure that it doesn’t continue. Helping those groups already on the ground needs to happen at a faster tempo, with greater contributions financially and also the personnel required from the more affluent countries which can afford this. Longer term, investment into the sanitation systems and continued education of the populations in the regions known to harbour the Ebola virus naturally needs to be undertaken, alongside the continued government-supported research into a vaccine which may take several years. However merely only doing one or the other will only provide a mere band-aid solution to the much greater problem of general lack of adequate health services and understanding in a region afflicted by more than just Ebola. Instead it is likely that unless the epidemic reaches a Western country, there will be little action beyond what has already occurred taken.
*Liam Maddrell is an Editor, Alochonaa.com, a PhD student, School of Government and IR, Griffith University and an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs – Qld Branch. This is his personal view.
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