The Internet Cares About Ebola, But Our Governments Don't

When white people are provided with every possible medical intervention in the face of a dangerous hemorrhagic fever while Black people are left to die, there's only one possible explanation for that disparity: racism.
Publish date:
September 4, 2014
racism, ebola, health policy, foreign aid

The Ebola outbreak in Western Africa doesn't seem to be going away. In fact, just the contrary: It's snowballing, after months of spreading across multiple African nations, with a growing death toll in its wake. The situation is getting critical enough that groups on the ground are actively begging for help from Western governments -- but those same governments aren't responding, even as the Internet is going into collective panic over the extremely rare virus.

What's the story behind the disconnect here? The funds needed to fight Ebola in Western Africa aren't nearly as high as those needed to, say, buy a few fighter jets, especially when spread across an array of governments, but the West has still been slow to act.

Westerners seem to be strangely fascinated by Ebola; every time an outbreak of any size develops in the virus's stalking zone, the news explodes with scaremongering reports about Ebola, exaggerating its risks and terrifying the general public. This outbreak was no exception, whipping the Internet and the general public into a fervor that only increased when two Americans were brought back to US soil for treatment after being exposed to the disease.

Both were missionaries working in Africa on the ground who'd contracted Ebola because of extensive contact with infected patients -- which is the only way you can catch the virus. It isn't airborne, foodborne, or found in water and soil. You must come into direct contact with infected body fluids. For patients in Africa, treatment for the disease is primarily based on comfort care, providing them with basic support to see if their immune systems can throw off the infection. The mortality rate of Ebola is highly variable, with around 35% of patients recovering just fine on average.

The missionaries, however, had access to a serum that's been developed from blood taken from patients who successfully survived Ebola infections -- the same serum that isn't being provided in the field in Africa. Many have questioned why two Americans got the serum when Africans were left to die in crude field clinic conditions, citing racism as a major factor. The lack of investment in drug development has also been criticized, with some asking whether pharmaceutical companies would be so slow to develop drugs for viruses that affect people living in Western nations.

Lot of viruses are a whole lot scarier than Ebola, in terms of both mortality rate and the number of people they affect worldwide. Yet, the Internet went into a sustained panic over Ebola, convinced that the virus would somehow make the hop to the West -- despite no clinical evidence suggesting that it would be possible for that to happen. When the missionaries were brought into the US, that fervor of terror reached a fever pitch, with people panicking at the idea that the disease had been brought into the US (despite that fact that it was already here in labs, and that every conceivable precaution was taken with the patients).

While civilian fears of Ebola might have been overstated, their governments responded in essentially the opposite way: With utter indifference. As reports mounted, Doctors Without Borders strongly urged the West to act, saying that government agencies in Africa and NGOs were essentially tapped out. Without any more resources, they couldn't treat existing patients, let alone control the spread of the virus -- especially since Ebola fears are equally high in Africa itself and many people are avoiding doctors and hospitals, including those with active infections.

This week, Doctors Without Borders finally levelled a shot across the bow, calling the West out for the estimated $600 million needed to fight Ebola in Africa. Explaining the situation in a special UN briefing, the venerable agency said that:

World leaders are failing to address the worst ever Ebola epidemic, and states with biological-disaster response capacity, including civilian and military medical capability, must immediately dispatch assets and personnel to West Africa.

Fighting words from an agency that has been struggling with Ebola since the start of the outbreak. Doctor Joanne Liu, addressing the UN, noted that despite the fact that the World Health Organization designated the outbreak as a public health risk with international implications in August, Western governments have failed to pony up with funds, in-kind aid, and personnel to fight Ebola.

She pointed out that many Western nations have teams of trained personnel ready to meet biothreats -- especially in the wake of September 11, bioterrorism is on the minds of nations like the United States, and they have invested heavily in developing teams to hit the ground quickly, and act quickly, in the event of an outbreak. The US has a particularly excellent record when it comes to handling biosecurity threats and public health emergencies, thanks to the CDC, which has been training and dispatching field officers all over the world for decades (including to the site of the first known Ebola outbreak in 1976).

How come individual citizens in the West are panicking over Ebola, convinced that the virus is about to sneak into their living rooms in the dead of night, while their governments do nothing? Could it perhaps have something to do with legacies of colonialism and racism?

As individual citizens whip themselves up into a terror over an exotic, mysterious disease from "darkest Africa," their governments are apparently not concerned. It's not because the government knows something citizens don't, judging from the fact that NGOs in Africa are begging for help -- instead, it would seem that Western nations are not invested in helping West African nations manage a major public health crisis.

Western investment in Africa overall has been spotty -- while NGOs and Western governments claim to be enthused about empowering Africans with tools to help them achieve their own destiny and make their place in the world, crippling IMF and World Bank loans have made it difficult for many African governments to establish themselves after liberation from colonialism. As a continent, Africa includes a complex web of societies, cultures, and traditions -- and Western domination over Africa has been replaced with a slightly different form of colonialism. While the West may not have extant colonies in Africa any more, colonial attitudes, including an indifference to the health and wellbeing of individual Africans, linger.

That's becoming painfully apparent as the Ebola outbreak continues. When Marburg erupted in Germany, Western nations were incredibly swift to act with medical aid, trained personnel, and a tremendous amount of resources. When white people are provided with every possible medical intervention in the face of a dangerous hemorrhagic fever while Black people are left to die, there's only one possible explanation for that disparity: racism.