Friday, September 12, 2014

Ebola in Liberia: The Government’s Fault?

With the Ebola virus “spreading like wildfire” in Liberia, “devouring everything in its path,” Brownie Samukai, the state’s defense minister, went on to tell the U.N. Security Council on September 9, 2014 that “Liberia is facing a serious threat to its national existence.”[1] With more than half of the epidemic’s deaths in that state—1,224 out of at least 2,2296 in West Africa as of September 6, 2014—and new cases “increasing exponentially,” the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that “the demands of the Ebola outbreak have completely outstripped the government’s and partners’ capacity  to respond.”[2] Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported that the illness had severely handicapped the mining, agriculture, and service sectors of the state’s economy.[3] Quite understandably, pleas for the government to do more peeled like frightened bells across the state. “The patients are hungry, they are starving. No food, no water,” a terrified woman told journalists. “The government needs to do more. Let Ellen Johnson Sirleaf do more!”[4] Even if valid, such blame is hypocritical to the extent that the people themselves had been refusing to do what is necessary to stop such a virus from spreading.

Concerning the validity of woman’s charge that the government was not doing nearly enough, Samukai pointed out that the “already weak health infrastructure” was overwhelmed.[5] That is to say, the government had to deal with an already-insufficient healthcare system. Why insufficient? Two theories of development give different answers. According to dependencia, or dependency theory, the infrastructure of a colony is oriented to getting commodities out to the colonizer rather than to developing an internal, web-like system. Roads of a coastal colony, for example, are prioritized that go from the interior to the coast, where ships can pick up the goods and transport them to the core economy (e.g., Europe). The colonists and even their successors cannot be blamed for the lack of internally-oriented infrastructure, yet at some point after a sufficient amount of time as a sovereign state the lack of any progress is surely blameworthy.

The modernization theory says that what holds a developing country back is not its colonial infrastructure, but, rather, things like tradition and ignorance that a people stubbornly cling to even when offered a better way. Superstition, for example, may keep people from working on certain days while tradition has it that a person should stop working as soon as he or she has enough for subsistence living. This inverse of the Protestant work ethic can keep capital from accumulating to the point that reinvestment can broaden an agrarian economy to include manufacturing industries. Rigidly sticking with the custom that puts child labor above education, a people can keep its young from becoming professionals, business entrepreneurs, and managers. Quite understandably, executives of foreign corporations are hesitant to start operations where such a base labor pool exists and reinforces itself.

Taken together dependencia and modernization theory can account for the weak health infrastructure in Liberia and other former colonies in Africa. Health-care of the natives had not been a priority of the colonizers. Additionally, education and investment, as well as even foreign direct investment, may be lacking even though they would contribute much to building a sound healthcare system.

Applied to the Ebola outbreak, we can look beyond the government and healthcare infrastructure to apply modernization theory to the people themselves. The funeral custom, for example, of touching the body the deceased friend or relative is great for the virus, which spreads by touch rather than air. Even so, the African who have this tradition stubbornly and/or ignorantly held to it even as the epidemic was spreading. Additionally, villagers took to hiding sick residents rather than allowing visiting healthcare workers to take the infected people to makeshift treating facilities out of fear that people go to die at such places; meanwhile, the villagers themselves could become infected. In some cases, villagers even attacked the visitors, stubbornly ignoring their pleas.

Scared villagers in Liberia stand far away from the healthcare worker, even as they risk getting the virus by rubbing up against each other--ignoring the worker's pleas. (Image Source: The Washington Post)

Simply maintaining a distance from other people, rather than continuing to touch them, would have done a lot to smite the Ebola. Especially sordid is the assumption that the healthcare workers and government officials don’t know what they are talking about, especially if the person also assumes that he or she cannot be wrong—such as in knowing that touching a dead body brings with it benefits that can keep the person healthy or safe. Ignorance that cannot be wrong, backed up by tradition, can indeed be a silent killer, the odor of which can only be pleasing to the Ebola virus. Blaming the government rings hollow from such a putrid drum, even if officials could be doing a better job in mopping up the mess.

[1] Abby Ohlheiser, “Ebola Is ‘Devouring Everything in Its Path.’ Could It Lead to Liberia’s Collapse?The Washington Post, September 11, 2014.
[2] WTO, “Ebola Situation in Liberia: Non-Conventional Interventions Needed,” September 8, 2014; Elahe Izadi, “Ebola Death Toll Rises to 2,296 as Liberia Struggles to Keep Up,” The Washington Post, September 9, 2014.
[3] Anna Yukhananov, “IMF Says Ebola Hits Economic Growth in West Africa,” Reuters, September 11, 2014.
[4] Abby Ohlheiser, “Ebola.”
[5] Ibid.