Latex, Diamonds, Charles Taylor, Austerity, Ebola, The Perfect Storm

Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds, Ebola and the Ravages of History, Paul Farmer, 2020

Young Paul Farmer and Future World Bank President Kim Jim Yong in Haiti


Ebola was not simply a deadly disease; it was the manifestation of neolibereralism as an affliction, which wrecks havoc in the world’s most vulnerable societies. –Ibrahim Abdullah and Ismail Rashid, Understanding West Africa’s Ebola Epidemic: Toward a Political Economy, 2017





Charles Taylor Liberian Warlord

There can be no understanding of this medical wasteland, and its vulnerability to Ebola, without knowledge of the shared and distinct histories… Their shared history has long involved rapacious extraction and forced labor regimes. Rapacity on this scale requires and foments violence, resulting in more illness and injury…That’s (colonial rule) where control-over-care strategies originated…In the first part of the twentieth century at least, black doctors were shunted aside or formally excluded from the colonial medical services…Many West Africans still harbor memories of campaigns to isolate (and sometimes destroy) settlements afflicted by smallpox, cholera, and vector-borne diseases such as plague, malaria, and trypanosomiasis. In the course of many of these epidemics, and for a century or more, funerals and wakes were banned, travel restrictions imposed, and punitive measures (from fines to incarceration) routine. Medical care was not…After independence, tardy efforts of link disease control to care were nonetheless under way in Guinea and Sierra Leone and, to a lesser extent, Liberia. But health expenditures of any sort remained a tiny fraction of postcolonial national budgets. That fraction shrank further when their governments signed on to structural adjustment programs (austerity) — and geared up for war…Neglectful policies first written by the sanitarians of fading colonial governments have left a disastrous imprint, but other disastrous policies were advanced by development institutions claiming to represent the poor, or frail or failed states. Few of these ventriloquists were natives of West Africa…Externally imposed austerity meant that governments lost much of their scant capacity to engage in anything resembling caregiving.

Commentary on most epidemics sends history down the drain. That’s no accident. Surely the successful rebranding of European empires as “Western democracies” and the inevitable focus on “local” disasters of African politics or epidemiology stand as impressive examples of willed amnesia. This entire process of shrugging off human agency — a.k.a. history — lets external actors and forces off the hook, allowing expatriate pundits and self-dealing global bureaucrats to argue that local greed and tribal grievance are the primary cause of independent Africa’s woes, including its poor economic, political, social, and physical health. But those without shelter are of course obliged to pay closer attention to the clouds above.

…if you want to address the delivery problems, you need a social medicine incorporating staff, stuff, space, and systems. But Western Africa, like the northern Congo, has not known this sort of social medicine, because of the extractive arrangements that I’ve described in the previous four chapters; slavery, racism, colonialism, and war. Its medical and public-health systems have failed repeatedly to delivery on the promise of discovery.

Ebola, like Marburg has received scant attention from the best basic scientists and clinical researchers, and from the world’s largest research based pharmaceutical concerns, for a simple reason: there’s not much money in it.

The critical step in preventing future epidemics will be finding ways of delivering vaccines and therapies to those who need them — and who need them in part because they live in a clinical desert that was created when their predecessors were enslaved and subjugated so that people and nations in other parts of the world could amass great wealth and prosperity.

Public-health nihilism and its control-over-care variant retain their force largely among the poor living in what are now called low-income countries. These countries are, of course, the former colonies; strains of the paradigm run rampant within them, and in the field now widely known as global-health.

The postcolonial world still suffers from control-over-care logic, and from the plague. In the Indian state of Gujarat, population forty-five million, plague killed hundreds in the 1990s–with the diamond polishing city of Surat the epicenter of a major outbreak in 1994.

One of the few happy aftermaths of the Western Ebola epidemic has been the development of what appears to be be a safe and protective vaccine… We can expect the usual debates about whether further and different clinical trials are needed, and which regulatory hurdles must be cleared before it and other vaccines are licenses, and by which agencies…Ebola-nomics is sure to influence these discussions, since the disease’s victims, like those sickened by cholera and plague, are mostly poor people of color, as are their primary caregivers.

…Ebola and other public-health calamities strike most often in places from which human capital and raw materials have been extracted for centuries. From the rural reaches of Haiti and Rwanda, from the prisons of Siberia, and from the slums of urban Peru; for thirty years, I’ve been pointing out how the epidemics that people have suffered in these places have arisen because of the inequalities — political, economic, and medical –that such extraction invariably worsens.

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