The Ebola crisis spread across West Africa in 2014, encompassing Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. This is the first Ebola outbreak to reach an epidemic scale. Previous outbreaks were controlled within a few weeks. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies extreme poverty, a poor healthcare system, a distrust of government after years of war, and a delay in responding to the outbreak for months by the national and international community as contributing to the failure to overcome the epidemic.
But more than a disease, the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa is a call for social justice. According to an article, Director-General of WHO, Dr. Margaret Chan, said, “The outbreak spotlights the dangers of the world’s growing social and economic inequalities. The rich get the best care. The poor are left to die.” The disparate economic conditions between the global South and the global North is highlighted by the fact I hold the privilege to access Western medical facilities and some people in West Africa were unable to reach healthcare centers because many hospitals, short on both staff and supplies, became overwhelmed and closed.
These countries did not have the medical infrastructure to support such a deadly outbreak, and much of this, I argue is due to the severe civil wars occurring in Liberia since 1989. However, these wars have a specific history stretching back to the early 1800s. Liberia was colonized by the United States while occupied by local Africans. Beginning in 1820, the area was settled by African Americans, most of whom were freed slaves. African captives were exported from the US to Liberia after fears of a rising slave population and a rising revolt. Entering Liberia, the former slaves instituted a similar hierarchical society as the one they experienced in the US. No longer were they the subordinates, but they became the masters (hence the name “Liberia” for liberty) of self and the local African population. Historical tensions have accumulated into two civil wars in Liberia to overthrow the Americo-Liberian government. These wars have displaced an estimated 500,000 people across West Africa and created the “perfect” conditions for a deadly outbreak of disease.
Dr. Margaret Chan of WHO also states, “Rumors and panic are spreading faster than the virus. And this costs money. Ebola sparks nearly universal fear. Fear vastly amplifies social disruption and economic losses well beyond the outbreak zones.” Instead of being concerned about the people dying in West Africa, the US and other Western countries were utmost concerned of self, even though the chances of contracting Ebola are slim to none in medically advanced nations. What does this say of our ethics and humanity? When the “liberal” US government deployed troops to West Africa, the “authoritarian” Cuban government sent voluntary medical doctors (of course, US doctors traveled to West Africa with various NGOs). This notion of prioritizing self or individualism arises from the capitalist economy that greatly affects realities and experiences in the global world.
What the world needs is an adequate and just distribution of healthcare. We need to encourage global economies that do not support and increase Western wealth to the damage and exploitation of the global South. It is important to recognize that each of us contributes to the system of institutionalized privilege and oppression. The political, economic, and racist ideologies that encouraged the world to initially overlook the epidemic in West Africa are the same political, economic, and white supremacist factors that produce and support my privilege, for which I must be accountable for. The Ebola epidemic forces the global community to pay attention to disease and health in a new way that is uncomfortable and calls us to take responsibility. We are forced to consider how those of us with privilege are both direct and indirect actors in the suffering and deaths of thousands.