Last week the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response was launched in Ghana, six months and over 3,000 deaths after the virus emerged in Guinea. It is the first time in history that the UN has formed such a response to a public health emergency, and rightly so, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Imperial College London experts predicting a rise to 20,000 cases by the end of November. Why, though, has it taken such a disproportionately long time for this to happen? After all, in the words of Ghana’s Communications Minister, Ebola is a “global problem that knows no boundaries.” Given that it is a virus with a relatively low contamination rate, medical resources combined with education and communication would have been sufficient to stop any significant spread.
As consumers of global media, many in the West have become desensitised to the appalling conditions of impoverished communities. The emaciated bodies and faces that haunt our TV screens have become a motif of everyday life; an unpalatable tug at our consciences, which we may momentarily acknowledge before moving on. Stories of horror from less developed countries are part of the wallpaper of the modern world. We may even grant these people our attention and pity for an evening of Comic Relief, banding together to settle the nation’s grumbling conscience. However, we are unable to sustain the realisation that simply by circumstance of birth, we are in a position help those who exist in poverty. How could we possibly do so? People have full-time jobs, children, economic difficulties of their own. It is far easier to slide money towards the problem – the charities and their volunteers will sort it out.
On top of this, we neglect the role of the West in causing this situation. Colonialism ravaged the African continent and left a legacy of poverty and unrest. That is our cultural heritage. Moreover, the capitalist economic system by which ex-colonialist nations maintain their elevated stance today relies on hierarchy, meaning for a few to prosper, millions must suffer. We despise tax dodgers and the abuse of MP expenses, but every one of us is trampling on the rights of someone else to maintain, or obtain, our perceived rightful social place.
These attitudes translate into the power politics of international governments. As long as Ebola seemed a purely African problem, too little was done to aid these stricken
countries. Despite repeated appeals from such organizations as Medecins Sans Frontieres, the international community remained all but inactive; there was little to be gained by helping. Those with the will to help, primarily WHO, lacked the means thanks to global governments withdrawing funds after the 2008 financial crisis. The threat of this virus dawned all too slowly, with many infected non-African aid workers being airlifted to their home countries, and the recent diagnosis on American soil. Cuba has made the biggest national contribution as yet, sending 165 health professionals, to be followed by a further 296 after they have received Ebola- focused training. This response puts to shame those of far wealthier countries such as the U.S.A. and U.K.
Now that the UN is launching its response, the likelihood of controlling Ebola is improving. With the correct resources and attitudes towards quarantine, Ebola in its current form is unlikely to reach pandemic level. It is vital, however, that we admit that the global community is unprepared for any kind of pandemic. With urban population growth and expanding international transport systems, the spread of contagions is virtually unavoidable. Why is it still so difficult for the international community to outgrow its insular, nationalistic attitudes and form a truly united response to global threats?
It is very well to reap the social and economic benefits of globalism, but we don’t yet adequately face up to the responsibilities attached. I’m not sure we ever will, unless we’re able to recognise the fact that classifications such as nationality and race have been created by long-dead people, whose world seemed much smaller. For all our technological advancement, it seems our politics are very much stuck in the past.