Ebola: If we don’t come together, we are doomed together

By Ameen Izzadeen
There are times that we should ditch our nation state identity and think as members of humanity to save the Earth’s people from a common enemy or a threat. This message has been underscored in many a Hollywood movie like ‘Independence Day’ though in the end it is the American hero who saves the Earth. But perhaps the first time, a real-life situation has arisen for the entire world to come together and fight a common enemy which, if not controlled or conquered, is capable of killing millions of people worldwide. Unlike terrorism where countries take sides on the basis that one’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, when a virus threatens to engulf the entire world, we cannot give excuses not to act.
As the clarion call is for all countries to unite in the interest of the human race, developed countries should emulate Cuba whose senior leader Fidel Castro has said his country was ready to put aside differences with the United States to undertake a combined effort to find a cure for Ebola.
It is a positive development indeed to see US and Cuban experts work together in West Africa. US Secretary of State John Kerry singled out the Cuban effort in West Africa for praise last week while the New York Times in an editorial urged President Barack Obama to move towards restoring diplomatic ties and ending the five-decade old trade embargo.
Together with these positive signals comes the news that the US and Canada were rushing experimental drugs that have produced positive results in tests carried out on animals.
But whether these measures are adequate or altruistic in nature is another question. Already allegations are surfacing that the dispatching of a 3,000-strong US military contingent to West Africa was aimed at strengthening the US African Command while profit-minded pharmaceutical giants such as GlaxoSmithKline have delayed the release of their drugs to treat Ebola until such time as the disease creates panic in lucrative markets such as Europe and Americas. It is also alleged that rich countries are not generous with donations to prop up the United Nations-led efforts in the fight against Ebola.
Health is a fundamental human right although, sadly, many constitutions, including that of Sri Lanka, make no specific mention about this. The World Health Organisation has enshrined in its constitution that the right to the highest attainable standard of health is a fundamental right of every human being. According to WHO, the right to health means that States must generate conditions in which everyone can be as healthy as possible.
Sadly, though, the right to health is least recognised in the Ebola-affected nations where poverty has a direct correlation with the outbreak of disease. Better access to health care, clean water and education together with resources to provide these facilities, produce experts and train health workers can be an essential first defence against combating disease.
Together with Ebola, the world should fight poverty in Africa and other least developed regions. Already Ebola has plunged the affected countries into an economic catastrophe.
But where does the money come from for such programmes? The money can be raised by slashing the defence budgets. Many countries, including Sri Lanka, have cut down on the health budgets and increased their defence budgets.
The situation is more pathetic when the WHO itself is forced to slash its budget. Experts say the slashing of nearly US$ 1 billion has forced the WHO to lay off its veteran medical staff and emergency response staff. This has seriously handicapped the agency’s ability to fight Ebola.
The WHO last week lamented that it had received only $100,000 in donations from world governments out of some US$300 million pledged, although the agency sought US$1 billion immediately for emergency operations in West Africa. By yesterday the fund had recorded only US$ 50 million. Perhaps someone should organise a live aid concert like Bob Gildof did decades ago.
Anthony Banbury, the head of the WHO’s Ebola Emergency Response Mission, said the world was falling behind in the race to contain the virus, with thousands of new cases predicted by December.
“It is running faster than us, and it is winning the race,” Banbury told the UN Security Council.
“We either stop Ebola now,” he warned, “or we face an entirely unprecedented situation for which we do not have a plan.”
With the number of detected Ebola cases for this year reaching more than 10,000 yesterday, the official death toll has crossed 4,900. But can we take heart from the fact that the death toll has not reached plague proportions?
With travel between world cities becoming a key element of the world economy, it is only a matter of time before a disease like Ebola becomes a global pandemic. Prof. Peter Piot, the scientist who discovered the virus in 1976, when the London Guardian newspaper asked him whether he thought the world might be facing the beginnings of a pandemic, said:
“There will certainly be Ebola patients from Africa who come to us in the hopes of receiving treatment. And they might even infect a few people here who may then die. But an outbreak in Europe or North America would quickly be brought under control. I am more worried about the many people from India who work in trade or industry in West Africa. It would only take one of them to become infected, travel to India to visit relatives during the virus’s incubation period, and then, once he becomes sick, go to a public hospital there. Doctors and nurses in India, too, often don’t wear protective gloves. They would immediately become infected and spread the virus.”
The only effective way to stop a pandemic is a global effort that is concerted, urgent and free of selfish or profit agendas.
When hundreds of millions of people died in Europe in the 14th century due to the Black Death, science was not as advanced as it is today and scientists of different countries were not maintaining contacts between them as they are today. When the Spanish flu of 1918 killed nearly 100 million people, science was still a nascent field that had not seen today’s antibiotics, laser technology, MRI scanners or stem cell breakthroughs.
Fortunately, Ebola is not airborne. It spreads through physical contact or body fluids. But some scientists do not rule out the possible outbreak of an airborne version that could be more disastrous than the Black Death.
WHO’s Banbury has criticised such suggestions as irresponsible and spreading panic. But scare stories abound. In Liberia, one of the four African countries affected by Ebola – the other three being Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, which was cleared by the WHO this week as Ebola-free — articles in mainstream newspapers speculate that Ebola is a virus introduced by the United States. These articles have alleged that the US Defence Department “manufactured” the Ebola outbreak as a germ warfare experiment and that the United Nations “deliberately introduced” the Ebola virus. They fretted over an impending influx of foreigners, who would be introducing the virus on the pretext of vaccinating the people.
Adding to such scares is a computer game developed on Tom Clancy’s thriller novel Rainbow Six. In both the game and the novel, Ebola is the key weapon used by a multinational corporation to kill the world’s population except the company’s chosen few, who have a cure for the virus.
If these stories are dismissed as conspiracy theories, fiction or computer games, what is disturbing is a controversial speech made by a US scientist in 2006.
Dr. Eric R. Pianka, a Texas ecologist and herpetologist cited a strain of Ebola as an effective means to solve the world’s population crisis. He told a meeting at the Texas Academy of Sciences that if Ebola were to become airborne, it would likely kill 90 per cent of the human population and instantly solve what he called the “overpopulation problem.”
This was how John Ballantyne, a journalist for Newsweekly magazine, commented on the speech (http://newsweekly.com.au/article.php?id=2439):
He (Dr. Pianka) argued that the sharp increase in the human population since the onset of industrialisation was destroying the planet. He warned that Earth would not survive unless its human population was reduced to a tenth of its present number.
He then offered drastic solutions, accompanying his remarks with a slide depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
War and famine were insufficient for solving global overpopulation, he explained. Instead, disease was far more efficient and swift…. AIDS took too long to kill people off, he explained. His preferred method of exterminating over five billion human beings was via airborne Ebola (Ebola Reston), because it is both highly lethal and kills its victims in days rather than years….
Ironically Dr. Pianka made his infamous speech in Texas, where the US detected its first Ebola case last month. The scientist of doom now says he never advocated bio-terrorism to control population growth.
But bioterrorism is a serious subject that the world should deal with along with the Ebola threat. They should revisit the Convention on Biological Weapons. Imagine terrorists developing a virus like Ebola. This is a major area of concern and this is probably why the US feared Aafia Siddiqui, a US educated Pakistani neuroscientist. She was handed an 80-year jail term in the US on terrorism charges. But it is also a fact that states do have secret programmes on germ warfare.
If we don’t come together we are doomed together. As Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has warned, the Ebola virus “respects no borders”.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
This entry was posted in Political analysis and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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