Wandering the almost deserted streets of London in 1665, the year the Great Plague swept through the city, H.F., the narrator in Daniel Defoe’s novel A Journal of the Plague Year, remarked that:
…the poor People were to be pity’d in one particular Thing, in which they had little or no Relief, and which I Desire to mention with a serious Awe and Reflection; which perhaps, every one that reads this, may not relish: Namely, that whereas Death now began not, as we may say, to hover over every ones Head only, but to look into their Houses, and Chambers, and stare in their Faces…
The rich, by this time, had fled to the countryside or quarantined themselves on ships floating off the coast. Almost anyone with the means to escape London had, while the poor rotted, taking on menial jobs – clearing dead bodies from homes and burying them in the night – so they could feed themselves and their families.
At the time London was the economic capital of the world, but the scenes depicted by Defoe seem medieval. This is hardly surprising: Confronted with the ‘Distemper’ no one had any real answers. Doctors could speculate, but it was nothing more than guesswork.
Today we know about bacteria and infection and have medicines that have been developed over decades to treat viruses and ailments. Yet, in this age, in West Africa, Ebola is wiping out entire families and villages.
The current Ebola epidemic likely broke out after someone ate an infected animal – probably a bat or primate. But without endemic poverty it could never have taken hold as it has.
The Ebola epidemic encapsulates the inequality that is one of the defining features of this neoliberal age: The world’s poorest are most affected, but have neither the resources nor means to manage. While the world’s richest, with both the resources and the means, react in a manner that best serves their own political and economic interests.
Despite the hysteria in the United States, drummed up by the eternally outraged Murdoch press, there has never been a chance that Ebola would wreak the same destruction in what’s often called – in a perfect encapsulation of how the West sees itself – the ‘First World.’
And any ‘First World’ people who get sick in the ‘Third World’ are evacuated to far superior medical centres and plied with experimental drugs. And, low and behold, this has proved rather effective.
This is the globalised age – never has the world been more interconnected, we’re told. It’s usually spun in a positive light – doctors from the West can come and treat patients in Africa or discuss the challenges with London or New York based experts in real time – without acknowledging that globalisation has exacerbated the dichotomy between the winners (the ‘First World’) and the losers (the ‘Third World’).
In Africa, globalisation – which often seems a mere extension of the colonial era – has allowed Western liberal democracies to exploit the continents natural resources and lay waste to the land without investing in any of the infrastructure and resources that would have made containing the Ebola virus infinitely less complex.
Capitalism necessitates that there are winners and losers, but when the inequality between the two is so vast it becomes impossible for poor states to lift themselves from this poverty cycle. Competition, the free marketeers tell us, is a good thing for the economy. But how is a country like Sierra Leone, Liberia or Guinea meant to compete against the developed economies of the West? The playing field is patently unfair.
Even aid – which Western governments sell as a benevolent act of charity – comes with conditions attached, often first of which is a commitment to liberal democracy and free market economics. This ‘assistance’ is used to create spheres of influences – it’s self-serving. But this is hardly even a thinly veiled secret anymore, so when President Obama committed troops and medical staff to the fight against Ebola (always with the military metaphors) he talked about the security risk failed states posed to the United States. The best way to stop Ebola reaching ‘our’ shores, he told the American people, was to head it off ‘over there.’
But that the justification for sending people and money to help stem the spread of a virus that has killed upwards of 8,500 people needs to be framed as a self-interest issue speaks volumes about what has primacy in the neoliberal age. One should hardly be surprised by this cult of selfishness, which, after all, is at the core of the Randian free-market utopia.
Yet these same people take a few seconds out of their day to tweet that #BlackLivesMatter, which, for large swathes of society, they clearly don’t. And if the lives of black Americans don’t matter, then lives of black Africans matter least of all. Why else would’ve the media’s coverage of the Ebola crisis all but stopped? Why else would world leaders rush to show pseudo-solidarity with a satirical magazine with a penchant for racialised stereotypes, but remain silent on the some 2,000 victims – mostly women and children – of Boko Harem in Nigeria?
In pre-industrial London any efforts to combat the spread of the ‘Distemper’ was undermined by a lack of knowledge about what caused it and how it spread. This isn’t the case with Ebola. Yet the science and medical knowledge has been undermined by neoliberalism, which has facilitated the speed with which Ebola has spread, stultified treatment and held-back the development of a vaccine.
As Anthony Fauci, executive director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told Scientific American back in July:
We have a candidate, we put it in monkeys and it looks good, but the incentive on the part of the pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine that treats little outbreaks every 30 or 40 years—well, that’s not much incentive.
The absurdity of pharmaceutical companies prioritising profit over all else has become normalised. Now there’s a rush to develop an Ebola vaccine and whoever comes up with it stands to benefit from a significant financial windfall – the only cost is a still yet to be determined number of African lives.
H.F. tells the story of a band of men – unemployed, destitute and fearful of contracting the plague – who leave London with little more than a homemade tent to escape the close-quarters of city life. The rich had long left and the men thought they too would try their luck on the open road, albeit it far tougher conditions. But as they approached every town, the people – fearing them infected – refused them entry and often threatened them with violence.
Society today still sees the poor – stereotyped as black or brown, disease-ridden, deranged – as a threat. Personal wealth, conversely, has come to embody intelligence, dedication and hard work. Those that have money are, thus, superior to those that don’t and when they have to come to the rescue (or enforce tough measures) they’re seen as performing their moral duty. So what if thousands of ‘them’ have to die to save a few of ‘us’? That, after all, is the world we live in – the world we created.