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The Ebola outbreak and Boko Haram prove that different rules apply in Africa

October 6, 2014


The following article is by Paul Vallely, visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester

Thousands are dying from the virus, and the Islamist fanatics terrorising Nigeria, but the West is not that concerned…

They are only Africans. They may be dying from Ebola in record numbers, but who really cares? Such are the politics of plague. And then there is the politics of war.

In Nigeria, the Islamist fanatics of Boko Haram are stoning men to death and pouring petrol on women and burning them alive. Yet where is the talk of air strikes in Africa, let alone boots on the ground?

The murderous terror-mongers of the UnIslamic State in Iraq are deemed to constitute a threat to the streets of the West. But Boko Haram, like Ebola, is just another of the apocalyptic four horsemen which for ever stalk that far-away continent of which we know little and care less.

Of course, no one says as much in such bald terms, not even in the farage of plain-speaking that characterises the demagogic rhetoric of our times. But it is hard to escape the sense that such is the reality of our political priorities.

This is not just the worst single epidemic of Ebola in history. The frighteningly contagious disease, which kills up to 90 per cent of those who contract it, has now slain more than all previous outbreaks put together.

Tens of thousands have died, far more than the World Health Organisation’s official figure of 3,300. Its progress is exponential; almost 40 per cent of the deaths have occurred in just the past three weeks.

How odd, then, that the news is dominated by stories about the one man who has taken the disease from Liberia to the United States. The Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose population are dying in droves, is quoted widely on the “unpardonable” action of the man who took the disease to the world’s richest nation.

There are reports about how he will be prosecuted for falsely declaring, when he boarded the plane for Dallas, that he had had no contact with Ebola. In the US there are in-depth accounts of the strict infection-control measures being put in place – the bubble tents, the reporting systems, the hi-tech gowns and gloves – that will make sure Ebola is swiftly contained.

Meanwhile, back in Africa the news is of how, despite promises of Western aid, local health workers not only lack gowns and gloves, but are even short of paracetamol and mattresses on which the sick can die.

The British government has announced a £100m aid package to build a series of clinics with 700 specialist Ebola treatment beds.

But that has been overshadowed by the revelation from MPs on the cross-party International Development Committee that British bilateral aid to Sierra Leone and Liberia was previously slashed by a fifth – doing grave damage to those nations’ health infrastructure.

“The weak state of the health system in both countries has greatly reduced the effectiveness of the response to Ebola,” the MPs declared.

The final grotesque metaphor for the gap between rich and poor has been the way that ethical concerns about the unproven nature of the experimental serum ZMapp were set aside so the drug could be given to British and American victims of the disease.

But none was made available for Dr Sheik Umar Khan, Sierra Leone’s chief physician, who died treating those struck down by the devastating epidemic.

It was a grim parody of the principles of global distributive justice. But it violated even a utilitarian calculus.

Saving the life of Dr Khan would have allowed him to save a greater number of lives than resulted from saving the life of a British nurse or American doctor.

But Dr Khan is merely a citizen of the global south. Such are the economics of international inequality. Africans are best treated, it appears, by quarantine; the US media has called for travel bans to cut off Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea from the rest of the world.

Travellers always get round such interdicts; the only safe way to protect the world is to finance the fight against the disease at its source.

It is not just Ebola. In Nigeria, ruthless fanatics are lashing, amputating and stoning in the name of a perverted vision of Islam.

Once terrorist guerrillas, they are now holding territory and proclaiming an African “caliphate”.

Three million have fled their homes. People are taking refugee on mountain tops. Government troops are retreating, saying they cannot match the fire power of the insurgents.

A Nigerian air force pilot has just been beheaded on video. The parallels with Iraq are uncanny.

Yet here there are no American air strikes as there are in Iraq and Syria.

The Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot – who has become the first Western leader to deploy troops against what he calls the “murderous death cult” of the UnIslamic State – is not claiming that Australia’s streets, and those of the wider world, need protecting from an “unprecedented terrorist threat” in Nigeria.

Why not? Because, as with Ebola, the deaths of Africans have no strategic, or even symbolic, significance in our global realpolitik. All this is not just deeply unjust. It is politically and epidemiologically myopic.

Ebola is one of the most lethal viruses known to humanity. It kills up to 90 per cent of its victims. There are about 500 new cases each week, according to the World Health Organisation, and the rate of increase is accelerating.

The virus can mutate rapidly because, like Aids or influenza, its genetic code is a strand of RNA, the less stable cousin of DNA. It could even become airborne. WHO strategists predict 20,000 infections in the next six weeks.

The US Center for Disease Control has warned of as many 1.4 million people infected by January.

But they will only be Africans. So that will be all right then.




16 Comments leave one →
  1. Meta permalink
    October 6, 2014 6:48 pm

    (But they will only be Africans. So that will be all right then.

    No; that is incorrect; in the Asian-Pacific Century, it’s very important that Australia’s finite foreign aid is focused effectively on those most in need, and with a view to promoting economic growth; accordingly, those actively addressing an unfolding humanitarian disaster of epic proportions occurring elsewhere may have afforded to them a very generous contingency quantum, equivalent to c. 1% of this year’s general allocation, to purchase some bandaids; to be applied howsoever, by whomsoever is most concerned.)

  2. TB Queensland permalink
    October 6, 2014 7:05 pm

    Agree emphatically, M!

  3. October 8, 2014 10:24 pm

    As any junk-scientist knows, `ebola`, like global warming, will only be killing and hurting black and brown people, and remember, `real people` are white. When these circumstances are the taken into consideration at leading educational institutions like the ipa, of course the only sound advice they, or Limited-News can give is, purchase submarines and aircraft off-shore. #teabags

  4. October 9, 2014 6:09 am

    abc1, man with ebola in texas died overnight,

    don`t worry teabags, its okay, he was black

  5. October 9, 2014 6:11 am

    he won`t be leeching any more obamacare off us

  6. October 9, 2014 3:47 pm


    A 57-year-old woman is under observation in the Cairns Hospital over fears she may have the deadly Ebola virus…

  7. October 10, 2014 4:32 pm

  8. TB Queensland permalink
    October 10, 2014 4:47 pm


    A 57-year-old woman is under observation in the Cairns Hospital over fears she may have the deadly Ebola virus…

    Negative … tests in late last night …

    She was in her own home under “isolation and self monitoring” … one of the reporters last night asked “does she live alone” … reply from QLD’s Chief Health Poobah … “no she has a house-mate” …

    Who is actually running this fkn country?

  9. October 18, 2014 11:25 am

    There hasn`t been this much teabag-panic in Dallas since Lee Harvey came to town.

    lt seems like the hospital in Dallas wasn`t following the quarantine protocol properly, and three of it`s nurses are suspected of carrying/catching ebola.

    One of the nurses flew across the country to organize her wedding, creating a panic, as cdc is trying to catch-up with `all` the passengers that were on her flight.

    Another nurse is on a cruise-ship, quarantined on-board. The ship has not been allowed to dock and off-load nurse is `other` various countries.

    l wonder what the third dill is doing.? #yay-teh-usa

  10. October 18, 2014 9:02 pm

    spam-trap seems to like eating comments with this handle #teabag

  11. Tom of Melbourne permalink
    October 18, 2014 9:48 pm

    So –
    • “teabagz” were worried about Lee Harvey Oswald
    • “teabagz” are now in a panic about Ebola
    • and #teabag has something to do with spam

    I think it would be quite ok if the spam filter was set to delete anything that combined “###” with “teabagz” and poor grammar.

  12. Tony permalink
    October 18, 2014 9:51 pm

    A moron filter would suffice.


  13. October 18, 2014 10:07 pm

    something about #bagz.

  14. Meta permalink
    October 19, 2014 2:43 am

    (No, Mr Ki-moon, Team Australia does not shirk! Moreover, I’m almost sure that Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister said weeks ago that contributory funds, “will be provided”, and, “immediately”; and honestly meant it, then and ever since.)

  15. Meta permalink
    October 20, 2014 4:52 am

    (l wonder what the third dill is doing.?

    Dunno, but a fourth dill is vaguely prompted into contemplating the preautionary principle, and a layer of secondary quarantine; ie protocols relating to restrictions on certain activities, say elective travel, especially on mass-transit systems, within the incubation period, for those who have had any primary contact with an infected person. Then again, fourth dills do also wonder about a public safety radio pronouncement from Queensland Health Minister Springborg this past week, touching on the kerfuffle in Cairns, apparently suggesting that anyone, anywhere in Queensland who thinks that they might have contracted the Ebola virus should make their own way to, and present themself for assessment at, the only designated treatment hospital, in inner-city Brisbane; but that informal broadcast explainer by the Health Minister seems to have become reformatted in a formal versioning of the quasi-recommendation.)

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