Ebola: ‘Africa’s problem’

How does the developed world respond to crises in the developing world? Sabrina Marsh explores the current Ebola outbreak in light of inequality, international aid and globalisation. 

We have seen the news stories and read the sensationalist headlines about the spread of the deadly Ebola virus. However, with only a handful of deaths outside of the three main West African countries where the outbreak is concentrated, is this response misplaced? It is easy to put Ebola in a box along with other ‘African problems’, such as poverty, starvation and HIV/AIDS.  We in the West need to seriously reconsider our approach to Ebola, not because it is an African problem that threatens us, but because it underlines a significant flaw in how we view international problems, both politically and socially. With globalisation and the increased interconnectedness of the world, this schism between issues that affect ‘us’ and ‘them’ is narrowing.

©EC/ECHO/Jean-Louis Mosser/Creative Commons license

©EC/ECHO/Jean-Louis Mosser/Creative Commons license

The current Ebola epidemic is deadly and is the worst recorded outbreak since its discovery in 1976. It has killed over 5000 people with 14000 reported cases worldwide.  These numbers are likely to be much higher, hiding the true extent of the devastation. Most of these are confined to West Africa, with Liberia recording the highest death toll. Ebola is easily transmitted and an effective killer with the mortality rate estimated to be at 70 per cent. The first reported case for this Ebola outbreak dates back to December last year. This may come as a surprise to some with media reports making it seem this current outbreak has only recently cropped up. Such a lag in the Western world’s concern and attention highlights our biased view of what counts as a crisis.

Ebola is now on many politicians’ minds as the virus rises up the international priority list, dictated by the West. The exact causes of Ebola are not understood, although there is a general consensus that it derives from fruit-eating bats which are a West African delicacy. A lack of resources, including basic healthcare services, across many countries in Africa has done little to negate the quick spread of the virus.  By way of example, Guinea has 10 doctors per 100,000 people while the US has 245 doctors for the same number. With a number of potential cases and deaths reported in Spain and US, panic across Europe and North America is on the rise.

The current approach towards ‘African’ problems by the West is unlikely to change soon. Future crises in Africa will be met with the same delayed response. This trend has been seen with other concerns originating from Africa, such as the ongoing crisis in the DRC which continues to kill many. Even now the frenzied media attention on Ebola has been met with lukewarm responses by policymakers, with cases of refusal to send medical personnel. This is especially shocking when the WHO estimates that it will cost $1 billion to combat the disease. European governments have reacted merely by pouring millions of pounds into controls which will do little to dent Ebola’s spread. Although Ebola is unlikely to ever become a real threat in the rich West where we have access to advanced medical care facilities needed to treat and care for the sick, it is time we began to recognise these huge global resource inequalities.

©The Speaker/Creative Commons license

©The Speaker/Creative Commons license

The inequality between citizens in parts of Europe and those in sub-Saharan Africa is unlikely to change dramatically in our lifetime. However, crises such as Ebola should be used to draw attention to the need for greater equality between the developed and developing world. Heightened equality would ultimately benefit us all through greater innovation, social mobility and better education. Many governments have spent too many resources putting in place screening facilities and border controls – scare tactics – which are unhelpful for a number of reasons, including cutting off Ebola victims from aid. However, some benefits have come about due to the media attention on Ebola. Increasing amounts of funds and help have been sent to devastated regions in Africa. A significant reduction in new reported Ebola cases is reassuring.

Ultimately parts of Africa will be devastated by this virus and the economic and social consequences in the region will be overlooked by the West as a problem somewhat detached from our own concerns. However, this crisis marks a growing consensus that threats to the West are no longer simply military in form. Ebola shows us that the problems in far-flung lands are no longer remote. It is time we all looked at global problems in a more effective way, recognising the inter-dependency of citizens worldwide. We have a history of turning away from Africa’s problems, but it is time such crises are seen in a new international light which focuses on the underlying causes.




The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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