by Andy Warren

In a word – dying.  But not from Ebola.

According to WHO data it looks like this:1501834_950246134996398_1142675260604489720_n

However, fear and anxiety are the sexiest ingredients of any story today – rather than boring facts. Ebola fits perfectly the Hollywood template of fast-moving disaster met by flimsy human desperation – Humanity’s timid, hopeless David versus Mother Nature’s angry Goliath – and the slingshot is invariably “hope” or some nauseating version of “pulling together”.

America is now – world media would have you believe – under siege by the Ebola zombies.  Africans and health workers hiding their sickness are lining up to sneak aboard flights to the land of the free.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

As the graph illustrates, Africans typically die without the help of Ebola from diseases absent in the West – thanks to poverty and political dislocation.

These do, of course, grab news headlines from time to time – typically when a large aid package is being offered in return for photo ops and NGO access to the levers of power and the economy.

Responses in the West to these various disasters and famines etc have very little to do with the concrete conditions on the ground in those countries and a lot to do with political events in the West.

Take for instance Swine Flu – a relatively benign strain which had more media impact than actual.  Donald Rumsfeld personally made millions via his relationship with Tamiflu – which is manufactured by a company he has a financial interest in.  That he was able to maintain personal business interests while in office is interesting in itself.  The suspicion that the Swine Flu panic appealed to him is, I think, well founded.

Even the WHO has lost its grip on a rational response – claiming, along with David Cameron and Barack Obama, that the current ‘outbreak’ is “a potential threat of an unparalleled human catastrophe”.  The opportunity to intervene on the ground directly is now there for the taking – as the US did in the case of Somalia – its first post-cold war action – at great cost to the Somalians.

Obama has dispatched hundreds of US troops to Liberia and is talking about increasing this to 3,000 US armed forces personnel.  French president Francois Hollande is also keen on sending troops.

Some commentators have at least pointed out the truth of this irrational panic.  Virologists have attempted to remind politicians and journalists that Ebola is easily destroyed and has a low transmission rate (measured relative to each infected person).  Where measles scores 12, Ebola scores only 1.

What these countries need is investment in infrastructure which gives them the same protection from basic, preventable disease as is enjoyed (relatively) in Western countries.

Meanwhile the UN estimates it would take only a billion dollars (US) to knock out Ebola.  The US ‘defence’ budget is $US661 billion dollars, or $1.8 billion a day.  Not only is it a minor problem in Africa, it could be easily dealt with.

What we need is to challenge the type of irrational panic response we’ve seen in the West about the Ebola disease.  If we fail to expose these flimsy excuses then we will fail to challenge the legitimacy of the diplomats and journalists who peddle them and we fail to challenge a system which has the wealth to end death from preventible disease but prefers to spend the money on weapons of war and mass destruction to further devastate the Third World.

  1. Phil F says:

    I think the point about the media concentration on Ebola tells us more about what is going on in the West than the problems of deadly disease in Africa is a good one.

    Ebola fits into the western view of Africa as ‘the dark continent’: weird, primitive, scarey people and superstitions and weird, scarey diseases. It’s interesting how, while liberal anti-racism/multi-culturalism has become the official ideology in most western capitalist countries, the old view of Africa has very much continued, albeit with a few new twists.

    It’s interesting too to see the connection between material reality and capitalist ideology. The inability of capitalism to develop the entire globe means that Africa is starved of investment and development; because people don’t question the limitations of capitalism, under-development (albeit accompanied by vast exploitation) of Africa *appears* to be a quality of the continent itself, and its peoples. The appearance then develops into a set of memes/discourse/ideology. And the ideology serves to justify the continuing under-development.

    On top of this, a section of western liberals swallow the ideology without realising it. So they come to view under-development as somehow culturally appropriate to Africa and embrace a form of romanticised primitivism which, in turn, alibis capitalism’s inability to provide the masses of the continent with what they need to create their own modernity. (There’s a useful review of a book about this embrace of primitivism, here:


    • Andrew Welch says:

      The entire third world tourism industry is built on inequality and covertly marketed cultural stereotypes including, as you mention, the acceptable cultural forms of “quaint” poverty.

  2. Admin says:

    There’s a very good article on Redline by a Mozambican comrade on how multiculturalism alibis capitalism’s inability to make the world one:

  3. Phil F says:

    Although the liberal multi-culturalists would argue that they are very much like anti-racism.

    In fact, I think quite a few of them would be rather incensed at your distinction. (I’m not, of course, but they would be.)

    Moreover, these days quite a bit of anti-racism, including some quite militant expressions of it, has become very much the ‘respect for difference’ approach.

    • Thomas R says:

      I think microaggressions are still massive in terms of interpersonal racist behaviour like even when liberal multiculturalism attempts to critique this it doesnt sink in at all. so it’s not like i go very long without overhearing racist comments. it’s just that the institutionalised racism of today is less overt… and liberal politics seems to only be able to deal with things if they are being hit in the face with them

  4. Admin says:

    Yes, there’s plenty of interpersonal racist behaviour and comments. But racism requires power. In fact, the classic left definition of racism was prejudice plus power.

    I’ll give you an example. About ten years ago the Springboks were in Christchurch (or maybe it was a Super 12 team) and one of the white players in a bar in town called a black South African woman who was in the bar too a ‘kaffir’. She complained and he was sent back to South Africa in disgrace, and it was the end of his Springbok career. Kaput.

    Well, who had the power in that situation? The white male or the black female? All he could do was use a racist word which had no power any more because apartheid/white rule was over; she now had the ability to end his career. So, because of the change in South Africa, she had more power in that particular interpersonal racist transaction than him.

    You say, “it’s just that the institutionalised racism of today is less overt. . .”

    Well, it depends what racism you’re talking about. The authorities are very hostile to migrant workers of colour (although in western europe they’re also strongly hostile to a lot of white migrant workers – ie if they come from eastern europe). NZ authorities are also hostile to people who aren’t white and who are surplus to labour market requirements.

    But the state and its institutions are not hostile to New Zealand citizens who aren’t white, but just cover up that hostility. The state and its institutions operate in accordance with the needs of capital accumulation and it should be pretty clear that *some* of the things capital accumulation requires these days are quite different from 40 years ago. Capital accumulation requires a sector of Maori capital, it requires a Maori middle/professional class, it requires Maori managers and so on. Having a Maori middle class which is as large, proportionately as the pakeha middle class (not achieved yet, but the trend is certainly towards it) is clearly not tokenistic; it’s a *real requirement* of capital.

    It’s understandable that the liberal left don’t read much Marx, but one of the problems on the far left is that they don’t either. They read liberalised-down versions of Marx or they read really, really basic stuff like the Communist Manifesto. Otherwise, it might be more widely understood on the left that, ultimately, capital really doesn’t care about people’s skin colour, gender, sexual persuasion, whatever. In the past, social stability required a hugely gendered division of labour, a racialised division of labour, etc etc. But it doesn’t now; in fact, quite the contrary. As Marx and Engels noted, as far back as the CM (and some of us never appreciated the profundity of this phrase for many years, until it beat us about the head), under capitalism “All that is solid melts into air”. They were talking about a set of conventions and beliefs that had prevailed up to their time, but they were also making a point that applied in their time and in the future.

    All the old solidities about the position of women, Maori, gays melted into air as a result of three things: the liberation movements, the changes in the way people were actually living in capitalist society, and the neo-liberal reforms.

    If you want to know whether changes have been tokenistic or prejudice becoming simply less overt at an institutional level, talk to people like some old gay men about how much has changed.


    • Thomas R says:

      While I don’t necessarily disagree with you here Phil I do think that pointing out all these things is often a large preamble to ‘therefor, we need to talk about class’. But we don’t only need to talk about class, and the personal is political (too). Organisationally, the left has often been notoriously poor at considering how bigotry can change form and still perpetuate inequalities – still end up with the same skin colours and genders doing most of the talking in radical circles even when the working class is less white, less men etc than society as a whole.

      So yes Capital needing to embrace multiculturalism is one thing. I just get very weary when I read things like the above from other white leftists – this is not a personal dig, I do not know you well and prefer to err on the side of caution.. as well as point out these concerns so that if you wished you could clarify your position re: racism etc.

  5. PhilF says:

    Thomas, over the years I have been involved in key Maori land rights struggles (Bastion Point and Raglan); the anti-apartheid movement, (long, long before it became ‘fashionable’); I was involved – including in the organising aspect – in the first-ever marches for women’s right to choose in relation to abortion (1973); the first-ever protest marches for gay rights (1973); protests against the dawn raids and deportations of the mid-1970s; and I was involved in a national liberation struggle where hundreds of comrades got killed and thousands got imprisoned.

    When I was 14 I got ‘Malcolm X Speaks’ out of the school (Aranui High) library *seven times*; it was my first political bible and hugely influential on my political thinking although, in more recent years, I’ve come to appreciate Martin Luther King as well (whom, at age 14, I simply dismissed as some kind of Uncle Tom; he wasn’t, he was far more left than a lot of people have appreciated). Important influences on my thinking include not only Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky but Lukacs (extremely important!), Gramsci, Korsch, Mattick (a council-communist) and key thinkers from the oppressed countries such as Fanon (a hero of mine), Cabral, Mariategui, Connolly and Pearse.

    Do you seriously think I would see the exploitation of workers at the point of production as the only thing that matters?

    But what I have also seen, over a period of more than 40 years of experience in struggles around class, race, gender, national oppression and sexuality in three different countries – I got involved when I was 14 – is how flexible capitalism is and how everything is up for negotiation *except* the exploitation of the working class.

    And, unfortunately, one of the things that strikes me about a *lot* of younger ostensible radicals is how uninterested they are in radical history and its lessons. It’s like everything is in the ‘now’, every day is Groundhog Day, every year is Year Zero.

    I’m not sure what has caused this inability to concentrate, in particular to do concentrated study of radical history (especially the mistakes), but it has a crippling effect on the political development of those it afflicts.

    As I’ve said to you before, when a lot of the left here speaks it’s like a time-warp. It’s like nothing has changed since 1984, except in economic policy.


    • Thomas R says:

      I don’t really read much Race/Gender discourse stuff from Marxists to be entirely honest. Part of that is because I kind of think that the goalposts have definitely changed – things have changed since the end of ultra conservative capitalism. And in some ways this has actually meant that (blasphemy warning) some post structuralists are much more relevant in terms of understanding power and stuff now. I wouldn’t ever eject Marxism but I honestly think when it comes to Critical Race Theory etc. some theorists who get shrugged off by more orthodox types as ‘liberal’ or ‘pomo’ or whatever are actually providing a complimentary body of work to Marxist theory.

  6. O'Shay says:

    Here’s an excellent interview between Allyson Pollack and Tariq Ali about the Ebola crisis focusing on Structural Adjustment Programs in Africa, the ideology of reliance on NGO’s and the growing privatization of health-care in Europe.

  7. A reader says:

    Ahmad Ebrahimi examines the root cause of the Ebola epidemic

    What has allowed an apparently insignificant virus like Ebola to evolve into a potentially global epidemic? First identified near the Ebola river in the Democratic Republic of Congo 38 years ago, it has been the source of a number of small outbreaks in countries of central and west Africa. All these either petered out or were brought under control after deaths counted in tens and occasionally hundreds. The largest previous epidemic was in Gulu district in the north of Uganda, with 425 infections and 224 deaths.1 As I write, the fatalities for the current outbreak are officially approaching the 5,000 mark.