By Jamea Robb
Panic in the face of this threat has been consciously whipped up in big-business press coverage and statements by the authorities. For example, Anthony Banbury, chief of the UN’s Ebola mission, said in early October that ‘there is a chance the deadly virus could mutate to become infectious through the air.’
Such claims have no scientific foundation. While viruses do evolve and mutate, no human virus has ever been known to change its mode of transmission. Alarmist predictions and speculations such as this are an attempt to frighten the bourgeoisie into taking action on the epidemic.
Having lost any connection to verifiable fact, the natural extension of such speculations is into the realm of conspiracy theories. The Liberian Daily Observer newspaper ran an article by Liberian-American academic Dr Cyril Broderick claiming that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was deliberately initiated by US military medical researchers who were experimenting on the virus as a possible biological weapon.
In another speculation that wraps several fears into one, Forbes Magazine reported Al Shimkus, a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, as saying that ‘the Islamic State may already be thinking of using Ebola as a low-tech weapon of bio-terror’, raising the fear that IS members might infect themselves and then deliberately spread the disease to others.
Broderick’s speculation is not totally implausible. The US military and public health authorities, including the Centre for Disease Control which is prominently involved in the Ebola response, have a proven record of carrying out clinical trials and medical experiments on unknowing human subjects, especially Black people, including one where people in Guatemala were deliberately infected with syphilis without their knowledge. The poisonous legacy of these government crimes has not been forgotten, nor should it ever be. Broderick’s conspiracy theory rests on the fully justified distrust of these institutions, which runs deepest among people of African descent.
But none of these speculations and conspiracy theories is backed up by any verifiable evidence; they remain purely speculative and, like all speculations, essentially idle. By focusing attention on the question ‘what if,’ they become yet another obstacle to facing the known facts of the situation, the urgent question of what is.
The meeting-point of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois responses to the Ebola crisis, where inaction masquerading as ‘taking action’ combines with anti-scientific irrationalism, must undoubtedly be the policies adopted by the US and UK to carry out body-temperature screening at the airport for passengers arriving from West Africa. Given the nature of the Ebola condition, the fact that symptoms can take up to 21 days after the date of infection to appear, and then strike rapidly and severely, such border checks could not possibly prevent more than a tiny fraction of infected travellers from crossing a border. At the same time, they will inevitably ‘catch’ great numbers of people with body temperatures raised for other reasons, thereby diverting resources further from where they are needed. David Mabey, professor of communicable diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the screening was a complete waste of time.”
The working class has only its labour to contribute, yet that labour is the key to solving the crisis. The proletarian response to the Ebola crisis is exemplified by the unselfish actions of the West African health workers, who are carrying out the socially necessary tasks of caring for the patients, collecting and burying bodies, and educating the population in prevention and containment measures. They do this despite inadequate safety equipment, serious threats to their own health, inadequate pay, and despite sometimes being ostracised in their own communities. The shortages of medical personnel are being overcome by dozens of volunteers.
A Guardian report on the ‘Ebola burial boys’ of Sierra Leone describes the situation: ‘One morning, residents in Kailahun [Sierra Leone] woke up to find their only bank closed. Those with cars fled. Life did slowly pick up again, but a state of emergency in July shut down schools. Soldiers poured in to quarantine entire communities and, in these lush farming hills, trade slowed to a trickle’.
In desperation, 20 young men signed up for the burial teams, each paid $100 (£61) a month for the task. ‘Hunger is killing more people than Ebola,’ said Abraham Kamara, 21, a fellow digger. They work to rigorous standards enforced by the Red Cross, but pay a heavy price.
‘When I’m passing, people I know say, ‘don’t come near me’!’ Jusson said. He looked skyward for a moment before continuing: ‘I try to explain to them. If we don’t volunteer to do this, there’ll be nobody to bury the dead bodies because all of us will be infected.’
The proletariat is an international class; its watchword is solidarity. Solidarity differs from aid. Solidarity means tying one’s fate to that of the people you are aiding. Given the real personal dangers to the health of those caring for Ebola patients, no matter how careful they are, this distinction is crucial to understanding the different international responses. Solidarity and isolationism are opposites.
In stark contrast to the response of the imperialist world has been the outstanding solidarity offered by the one country where the working class hold state power: Cuba. When the call went out for volunteer health workers to go to West Africa, fifteen thousand experienced health workers stepped forward, living proof of Che Guevara’s statement: ‘to be a revolutionary doctor, there must first be a revolution.’ This is in a country of 11 million people, under extreme economic pressure from the US blockade, a country which already has 50,000 health workers serving overseas in 66 countries.
103 nurses and 62 doctors selected from among the 15,000 arrived in Sierra Leone in early October, a further 296 will go to Guinea and Liberia shortly. The Cuban government has indicated its willingness to send still more personnel, provided there is enough funding and infrastructure to support them.
This commitment has many precedents. The Cuban people – a large proportion of who are descended from African slaves – made a similar commitment to Africa by sending volunteers to defend newly-independent Angola from attack by apartheid South Africa in 1975. (Recently declassified documents have revealed that the US Secretary of State at the time, Henry Kissinger, was so incensed by this that he drew up plans to ‘smash Cuba’ with airstrikes in response.)
Nelson Mandela said of Cuba’s action in Angola, ‘It was in prison when I first heard of the massive assistance that the Cuban internationalist forces provided to the people of Angola, on such a scale that one hesitated to believe; when the Angolans came under combined attack of South African, CIA-financed FNLA, mercenary, UNITA, and Zairean troops in 1975.’
‘We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.’
On several occasions during this crisis the health workers in Liberia, Nigeria, and elsewhere have engaged in strikes to demand adequate safety protection while they carry out their perilous tasks, and to demand payment of unpaid wages and adequate compensation for the dangers involved in their work. These struggles are an essential part of advancing the fight against the disease.
A lesson from history is relevant here. A hundred years ago and more, tuberculosis was a killer disease afflicting workers in the advanced capitalist countries in Europe and elsewhere. It is commonly believed that the scourge of tuberculosis was overcome (at least in the imperialist countries) by the development of antibiotic vaccines and cures. This is false. Long before the antibiotics were widely used, death rates from tuberculosis had been steadily decreasing. By the time the antibiotics were widely used in the post-World-War-2 world, 90% of the decline in tuberculosis mortality had already been achieved. The reduction had taken place as a consequence of working class struggles for decent housing and higher wages – and consequently, better nutrition. Concluded
James Robb, a communist at large living in New Zealand, blogs at convincing reasons.