As the grave news spreads around the globe about the recent surge in Ebola infections, including an African man who has died in Dallas, Texas, fear is taking hold. Families terrified about contracting the disease are pulling their children out of schools as a poor immigrant community tries to cope with the unfolding situation, where more than 80 people are believed to have been exposed to the virus and are being monitored under quarantine.
This is the neighborhood where now-deceased Thomas Eric Duncan came to the United States from Liberia to re-unite with his fiancée and their child, only to succumb to the deadly virus days later.
As in the case of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, there is no established pharmaceutical cure for Ebola viral infection. Medical teams can only struggle to treat symptoms as a patient is ravaged by the virus. The virus is transmitted through body fluids of persons infected with the virus plus in the bodies of those who have succumbed to the disease. The fatality rate of the disease is approximately 50 percent.
In Spain, a nurse employed at a major hospital has been diagnosed with Ebola virus. How this well-trained nurse could have become infected in a state-of-the-art hospital has prompted questions about the disease and standards of care in urban hospitals in Europe and the United States. Many labor unions and nurses’ organizations are pointing to the government’s recent draconian cuts in funding for health care and other social services as the root of the problem.
Ebola, which has claimed over 3,400 lives in West Africa, has starkly unmasked many of the lies and myths about the role of the United States globally and at home regarding health care and other issues affecting people’s lives. Foremost, imperialist U.S. policies have brutally exploited and plundered countries throughout Africa. At the same time, in the United States, the racist foundations of U.S. society, and the deprivation of basic human rights for poor and working people to health care, can be seen in the meager and callous response to this crisis by the power structure in Washington.
In Dallas, African immigrants are being turned away from restaurants and their jobs. Anti-immigrant rhetoric is everywhere in the news. Instead of a government campaign aimed at uniting people to help heal those suffering and to mobilize the scientific community to find a cure, the Obama administration is standing by while racist demagoguery is escalating.
Racist denial of care
Thomas Eric Duncan was sent home from the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas after going to the hospital with a fever, diarrhea, decreased urine output, and other symptoms. Rather than being admitted for treatment and further testing, he was sent home.
Hospitals are required to admit anyone regardless of ability to pay or nationality. In practice, though, such discrimination happens routinely all across the United States. Due to financial pressures, hospitals and clinics are always looking for ways to ensure they get paid, relegating poor people without insurance to a lower and wholly inadequate level of care, including exclusion from hospital care.
The denial of care to Thomas Eric Duncan has reverberated through the African community in Dallas and has prompted many African-Americans to speak out, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. Duncan’s fiancée, Louise Troh, and other family members have charged that Duncan had been discriminated against by the hospital.
“When they listen to your accent, they treat you different,” said Troh’s daughter, Younger Jallah, a 35-year-old nursing home worker who helped care for Duncan before he was hospitalized. “They didn’t treat him right.”
Her husband, Aaron Yah, agreed: “That’s what everybody thinks. One, he’s from Africa. Two, he didn’t have insurance.”
Racist blame game
The U.S. popular media, owned by giant corporations, has reverted to their usual racist blame game, targeting the now deceased victim himself, even calling for his arrest shortly before his death for allegedly lying to authorities on having come into contact with someone infected with the Ebola virus.
Right-wing pundits have been busy making racist remarks about people in Africa, calling for a ban on flights from countries in West Africa, a step that would only drive the epidemic deeper underground and enhance the spread of the disease all over the globe.
Ebola is not a newly discovered disease. If action had been taken sooner, if funds and resources had been allocated to the countries in Western Africa, the necessary treatment centers, pharmacies and health care personnel could have been developed to prevent the current crisis. But because of centuries of colonial exploitation, oppression and plunder, the region has been exploited and only used as a base of operations for U.S. and European powers, which have never spent funds to help develop those countries.
While the World Bank, the United States and Europeans are now promising to build hospitals and clinics, it is unlikely that many such projects will come to fruition. The United States has explicitly stated that U.S. personnel would not staff the centers.
Clearly, the U.S. medical system once again has shown itself to be unable and unwilling to prepare to cope with a major epidemic, where, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 1.4 million people will be infected by the year 2015. Under capitalism, reserve cadres of trained health care workers are not available to be mobilized to combat an outbreak of such a disease, whether it is due to the spread of a virus or the aftermath of a natural disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake. There’s no profit in treating people in need.
While vast sums of money flow into the U.S. war machine, where endless billions are spent on weapons of mass destruction aimed at civilian populations around the world, the inequalities of the society come into stark view when a large medical crisis occurs. Racism, denial of access to poor people to health care without adequate insurance, uneven levels of care, inadequate staffing and training of health care workers, all come into play.
Surrounding the recent surge of Ebola infections, people in Africa and people living overseas from Africa are being blamed, scapegoated and demonized across the span of television, radio and social media.
In the capitalist world, science, reason, compassion and care are submerged while hysteria, bigotry, fear and panic flourish.
Instead of mobilizing the scientific and health care community to find organizational pathways to control the spread of the virus, instead of supporting those infected, and instead of educating and mobilizing public opinion towards a collective effort to combat and stop the epidemic, chaos rules and suffering flourishes.
Quarantine, a necessary means of controlling a highly contagious pathogen, becomes a brutal lock-down. In Dallas, the family of the deceased was locked in their tiny apartment, unable to leave.
Contrast this with the quarantine of people infected with HIV in Cuba, who were given the finest housing, food and care possible, in spite of the difficulties caused by the U.S. blockade of Cuba.
Socialist Cuba was in fact the first to send large numbers of medical workers to Africa to help fight the epidemic. Embarrassed by this, and having ignored the Ebola crisis for years, the Obama administration finally committed to sending some support to Africa. What that support will be remains to be seen.
Truly humane quarantines; desperately needed medications to provide comfort and treatment; nurses, doctors and other medical workers, transport and equipment—all this costs money, and that cuts into profits for a system based on the bottom line.
As the epidemic grows and more are infected, a civil rights emergency that could have been prevented will also continue to grow. A movement for full access to free and quality health care for everyone, a movement that says no to racism and yes to research and development—not of weapons that kill—but of treatments and cures for disease and suffering will be required to fight back and demand justice. The root cause is systemic, the profit system. The answer is a socialist world where the priorities are health care for all, healthy food, clean water, housing and education, with equality and justice for all.