No, Ebola Will Not “Cure” Africa

In late September, the Stanford Political Journal published an article entitled “Ebola Might Help the Cure for Africa”. Unfortunately, no objections were raised about this piece, whose message implies that a disease with 4000 victims somehow constitutes a positive force in West Africa. The Review will not go after them for hastily retitling the article to “Ebola Misconceptions” with no correction or apology, though the Journal’s editorial team wasn’t quite proactive enough to change the telltale URL from its original. Rather, in the spirit of free debate, we will examine the argument which the piece presents to us.

Ebola matters not because of its raw death toll – which, as the Journal points out, is comparatively low – but because of the way in which its sufferers die. Ebola victims develop a roaring fever, then vomit and suffer diarrhea ceaselessly; then their kidneys and liver shut down, and they bleed relentlessly inside and out. To watch your sibling, parent or child die like this is horrific and painfully slow; what makes it worse is that hugging, kissing, or touching them, as is customary in many West African burial ceremonies, passes the virus on to its next victim. Ebola ravages specific, unlucky families and communities, and leaves them irreparably fractured. In these circumstances, you had better be sure that you know what you’re talking about before you start commenting on a health epidemic.

Thankfully, the article’s author has been to Ghana, so is clearly well-qualified to talk about a disease whose victims are at minimum a mere 500 miles away. The writer informs us that the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared an overly-panicky emergency and caused business to flee, thus cratering healthcare budgets. Incredibly, this manages to be wrong in three different ways. First, the WHO has quite clearly stated that the risk of visitors contracting the disease is “extremely low”. Presumably, the author is conflating the risk to travellers with the threat to communities, whose limited sanitation and traditional funerals have caused the “severe acute public health emergency” that have landed 2,122 infected people in wards designed for a maximum of 848. In the former context, ebola is not a threat; in the latter, few things are more dangerous. Second, quoting figures out of context masks the fact that deaths that have occurred have been in extremely localised communities and are severely underreported as a result of systematic mistrust and fear for the consequences of quarantine. The WHO is probably legitimate in taking caution when ebola is so infectious for and so deadly to specific, vulnerable, people. Third, the idea that businessmen running away will cut healthcare spending is highly questionable given that:

  1. The WHO and West, not West African governments, are funding the vast majority of ebola treatments;
  2. The atrocious management of West African healthcare systems caused the ebola outbreaks in the first place;
  3. Most healthcare support and funding is not directly linked to tax revenue anyway; and
  4. The Liberian recession was caused not by Western businesses withdrawing but rather panic about the speed of the disease’s spread. The article implies that the WHO’s determination to tackle this spread so strongly was a mistake; this runs in direct tension to the (correct) claim that the fear-fuelled economic crash is wreaking havoc.

Moving on, our friend at the Journal then gives us perhaps the most egregious claim of this entire error-ridden article. Apparently, we should be grateful that ebola hit West Africa, since now we know that their healthcare system is terrible and can apply the necessary political changes; of course, though, we shouldn’t spend any money on ebola itself, because the cash would be much better off going entirely to other diseases. (Yes, this was part of their contention.)

I really don’t know where quite to begin with this nonsensical argument. I guess we could start with the fact that people tend to be pretty aware of the deficiencies in Africa’s healthcare system, with or without ebola: hundreds of billions of dollars in aid inflow, continuous malaria appeals, and constant awareness-raising events don’t quite fit with the author’s narrative of Westerners thinking Africans have cushy hospital beds and consistently low copay rates. Or we could point out that the ebola crisis has been reported in the West almost entirely in terms of the threat posed to Europe and America, rather than the sort of in-depth coverage of African health you’d need for the response the author talks about. Or if the Journal really is serious when it says we should always allocate all health spending entirely according to efficacy, perhaps its editorial team could start lobbying Vaden to shut down and spend its customers’ cash on sub-Saharan deworming initiatives and nothing else. Perhaps the author is unaware of the fear of ebola that has paralysed West Africa, and led to thousands of protesters to beg the WHO with placards to do more to stop the crisis; or perhaps they just don’t care about the consequences of ignoring the people we’re supposed to be helping. More than any of this, not once does the article even suggest that it might, just might, be distasteful to talk about the systematic wiping-out of tragically unlucky societies in terms of the net benefit to the people left behind.

The most depressing thing about the Journal’s case is that, in some respects, they’re right. Ebola is, as they say, “100 percent preventable”. Africa does suffer from appallingly inadequate healthcare, despite the WHO’s best efforts to improve the situation and statistical evidence that they are making progress. The disease is not majorly threatening to the West, whatever CNN might be saying this hour, although it has had a ravaging and paralysing effect on those it has struck. Yet the way in which the magazine links these accurately-plotted points together in such a misleading manner is deeply unfortunate, especially for a magazine that claims to be Stanford’s premier source of political debate.

(This article deliberately omits the name of the Journal piece’s author, in the hope that the magazine will retract or correct it without causing harm.)**

Subscribe to the Stanford Review