by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
December 7, 2014
FREE MARKET FAILURES FUELED THE EBOLA EPIDEMIC
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The Ebola scare seems have faded from the headlines in the United States. Thanks to a combination of political opportunism by conservatives and a brain-dead media, a few isolated cases in this country got totally blown out of proportion.
But in the places where Ebola is a legitimate health threat - Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea - there remains an ongoing struggle by health workers to isolate and contain the deadly outbreak.
Most of the more than 5,000 people that have died and the 14,000 known cases of infection have come from those three nations. Some have called this outbreak a natural disaster, but like many things that happen to the world's poorest, it was hardly that. This was an economic and social disaster that was avoidable.
Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are among the poorest nations in the world. More than half the population in each country lives in abject poverty. In the case of Sierra Leone and Liberia, both were ravaged by unimaginably brutal civil wars in recent years. As a result, they cannot afford to provide for basic social needs, let alone alone deal with an outbreak of a deadly disease.
That is because these nations are spending more to service internationally-held debt than they are on public health. For example, Guinea spent about $100 million on public health in 2012, but spent $150 million on debt service.
Then there is the matter of the "profit-driven" pharmaceutical industry, which does not invest in cures "for markets that cannot pay," says World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Dr. Margaret Chan,
Even though Ebola emerged nearly four decades ago in Africa, Dr. Chan said last month, that clinicians are "still empty-handed, with no vaccines and no cure - because Ebola has historically been confined to poor African nations. The R&D incentive is virtually non-existent."
Between the inability of West African nations to fund a robust public health program, and the lack of enthusiasm by the drug companies to come up with an Ebola vaccine because it would not be as profitable as erectile dysfunction pills, the result is what Dr. Chan calls "the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times."
Quite simply, she said, "without fundamental public health infrastructures in place, no country is stable. No society is secure. No resilience exists to withstand the shocks that our 21st Century societies are delivering with ever-greater frequency and force, whether from a changing climate or a runaway killer virus."
Poverty kills even more people in Africa than Ebola. Diarrhea kills about 2,000 African children a day. Why? Because the two things that would prevent the disease - safe drinking water and improved sanitation - don't exist in too many places. Cholera, HIV/AIDS and malaria just as disproportionately deadly.
Chaos kills, too. Whether it is political chaos - when governments fail to provide for their people, or environmental chaos - when deforestation, pollution, and climate change act as catalysts for pandemics - where there is instability, the threat of a pandemic is never far away.
That's why the United States and other nations have an obligation to do more than just monitor disease outbreaks and respond to emergencies. We need to make sure the medical professionals responding to these emergencies have the tools to do the job.
The so-called free market will not stop the Ebola pandemic. A partnership of government, the private sector, and academia would likely fare better.
When compared to the higher cost of responding to humanitarian public health disasters after they have happened, it's cheaper and far more effective to spend money on developing the technological and scientific innovation to respond to pandemics before they happen.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.