Sending soldiers to save lives?

October 2, 2014

U.S. political leaders claim that the Ebola epidemic of West Africa represents a threat to the U.S. But is the answer sending in the U.S. military, asks Lee Wengraf?

A MAJOR Ebola epidemic has caused a public health emergency in West Africa that the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling "unparalleled in modern times."

The United Nations says the Ebola outbreak, centered in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, is "a threat to international peace and security." Its health chief Margaret Chan called Ebola "likely the greatest peacetime challenge that the United Nations and its agencies have ever faced."

However, the U.S. political and media elite are most frantic about reports of a single Ebola case in Texas, the first reported on U.S. soil--with the racist right leading the way in calls to curb or ban all travel and migration to the U.S. from Africa.

The popular fear of this terrible and deadly disease--with its signature symptoms of internal and external bleeding--is understandable. But the threat of Ebola spreading here is small compared to the nightmare that is underway in Africa--with much worse to come.

The U.S. government could stop the worst from happening in Africa if it were to devote the resources it uses on waging war to save lives in one of the poorest parts of the world. And by the way, that's also the most effective way to prevent Ebola from becoming a public health threat in the U.S.

A Red Cross volunteer gives instructions about Ebola to a crowd in a city in Guinea
A Red Cross volunteer gives instructions about Ebola to a crowd in a city in Guinea (Idrissa Soumaré)

Yet the Obama administration is choosing a militarized response. The U.S. plans to deploy thousands of soldiers in the countries hardest hit by the epidemic. This isn't what West Africa needs at all--but the deployment will help Washington project its imperial presence on a continent that has emerged as a crucial battlefield in the war among the world's most powerful nations.

PREDICTIONS OF how long the epidemic will plague Africa have varied--the WHO says at least six months, while the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. predict as long as 12 to 18 months.

Either way, this is by far the worst outbreak since the virus was discovered in 1976. As of the start of October, more than 7,000 people have been diagnosed with Ebola in West Africa and 3,338 have died from it, according to the official statistics of the WHO. Previous statistics put the fatality rate at 50 percent of those infected--but now the WHO has increased its estimate to a 70 percent death rate.

Yet some public health experts warn that the severity of the threat is still being underplayed. Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations told Democracy Now!:

[M]ost of the people on the ground are saying that it's understated threefold...The other thing to keep in mind is that while we're focused on three nations that are really, really devastated--Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea--we also have cases in Senegal and Nigeria, and then a completely separate and different strain of the virus is breaking out in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And that epidemic is also proving more difficult to control than people had initially thought.

So I think we're at a turning point. We either find a way to mobilize on a scale unprecedented in modern times for epidemic response, or we will be looking at something like a quarter-million cases by Christmas...This is a screaming cry--we couldn't ask for a louder one--that says globalization is not working, we don't have any system of global governance, and we don't have anything called "global health" to speak of when it comes down to actually getting things done.

Public health officials say it is still possible to stop the worst-case scenarios. "A surge now can break the back of the epidemic," Centers for Disease Control (CDC) director Tom Frieden told reporters. But the world's most powerful governments must respond now--and with very different priorities than they've displayed so far.

MANAGING THE crisis is made many times worse by the devastated conditions of West African health care systems, already among the poorest in the world. A severe shortage of trained health care professionals as well as basic supplies for disease containment and treatment have exacerbated the epidemic on this part of the continent.

Nigeria--the most populated nation in Africa--has managed to gather sufficient resources to halt an outbreak on the scale seen in neighboring countries. Guinea, on the other hand, ranked last in a 2011 World Bank study of beds per capita, while both Liberia and Sierra Leone faced almost two decades of uninterrupted civil war.

As the Guardian reported:

Sierra Leone's President Koroma admitted on national television that his country does not have trained nurses, and doctors to deal with the outbreaks because its public health system is badly broken. He further shocked the viewers by pleading for basic necessities such as gloves and masks.

This paints a disturbing picture. It tells a pathetic story of the chronic failure by the government to deliver basic services to its people, half a century after independence, and almost 15 years after peace was brokered. Sierra Leone is among the top 10 diamond-producing nations, with estimates ranging between $250 million and $300 million per annum.

Poverty is a major culprit in the spread of a disease that is chiefly treated by rehydration, which many West African facilities struggle to provide. Unlike diseases such as the flu, which spread easily through airborne transmission, Ebola can only be passed by contact with bodily fluids. It is deadly for those infected, but an outbreak can be managed with adequate health care resources.

As Paul Farmer of Partners in Health told Democracy Now!, the crisis today is:

a reflection of long-standing and growing inequalities of access to basic systems of health care delivery, and that includes the staff, the stuff and systems...[H]ow are we building local capacity to do that so these epidemics don't spread--as they would never spread in the United States, by the way?

The scale of inequality in access to resources for ordinary West Africans has prompted the WHO to allow the use of experimental drugs, but the most promising treatments, such as ZMapp, has been limited to Western patients.

Although much has been made in the Western media of the supposed superstitions and unfounded fears of African patients and their families, the grim fact is that mass distrust of aid agencies is inevitable given the lack of treatment for far too many.

African poverty is a product of colonialism and neoliberalism. Structural adjustment policies handed down by global financial institutions have sharpened inequality for the majority of Africans, despite strong growth rates recently, especially for Africa's oil-producing nations. According to the World Bank, three of the 10 countries with the fastest-growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa, but an estimated 58 percent of the population were living on less than $1.25 a day at the turn of the millennium.

Austerity has dramatically undermined the ability of nations to build adequate health care infrastructure able to cope with infectious outbreaks. Public health expert Lawrence Gostin reports that the nations currently most impacted are "ranked lowest in global development and do not have the basic infrastructure to contain the Ebola epidemic...More than 20 Ebola outbreaks have erupted in sub-Saharan Africa, yet the world was unprepared for the current tragedy, with no licensed vaccines or treatments."

And as Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman reported, over the past two years, the WHO has reduced its budget by 12 percent and cut more than 300 jobs. The 2014-15 budget reflects a more than 50 percent reduction in the WHO's outbreak and crisis response. Such policies have meant devastation on a massive scale.

WITH ITS unrivaled medical and technical resources, the U.S. would be a likely candidate to step forward in this crisis. But Barack Obama and the U.S. government have been criticized for months for the slowness of their response.

In recent weeks, Obama has taken action--but not the kind Africa needs. The U.S. response will be a largely military intervention in Africa, with the president insisting that the Pentagon will "have to get U.S. military assets just to set up, for example, isolation units and equipment there to provide security for public health workers." Meanwhile, U.S. leaders have contributed to fear-mongering about Africans causing a global pandemic.

Obama's plan includes sending up to 3,000 military personnel to the hardest-hit countries, to be drawn from the 4,800-member Africa Command (AFRICOM) deployed to the continent by the Pentagon. Obama claims that the U.S. military will coordinate with civilian organizations to distribute supplies and construct up to 17 treatment centers.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Liberia, where infections have spread the furthest and are still growing, says it needs 800 to 1,000 isolation beds, but its current capacity is between 150 and 180 beds. Meanwhile, the U.S. plan seems to fall short on mobilizing or recruiting medical personnel to actually treat victims of Ebola--and it is preparing to construct a field hospital that will be for foreign health workers only.

Sending U.S. soldiers has the potential to fuel fear and anger among Africans already subjected to enforced isolation under armed guard. Recently, in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, the West Point neighborhood erupted in protests against the repressive actions of the military and government. As Gostin explained:

Countries have erected cordons sanitaires (guarded lines preventing anyone from leaving), but are using ancient methods to enforce the quarantine. In West African hot spots, armed troops have established blockades, closed roads, and banned travel beyond the guarded perimeter. As a result, the populace is finding it hard to obtain food and other basic necessities...Transmission hot zones can't be ignored, but neither can the needs and human rights of communities.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT of U.S. military intervention was met with ambivalence from some who typically reject boots on the ground in response to epidemics. Doctors Without Borders, for example, while initially rejecting calls for troops and heightened security, has now provided lukewarm support for Obama's plan.

Others rejected military involvement, but only on the grounds that U.S. military personnel aren't equipped for humanitarian work--rather than questioning a militarized response to an epidemic in a highly unstable region by the most powerful armed force on the planet.

People everywhere rightly feel an urgency to confront the Ebola epidemic. But we shouldn't forget that the U.S. government has imperial interests at stake in Africa.

In the past several years, a new scramble for profit has swept Africa, with foreign investment in agricultural land on a mass scale, thanks in large part to privatization policies demanded by international financial institutions. The influx of U.S. troops in the same period is about protecting Corporate America's piece of the pie, not ensuring security and peace.

No one should believe that the rulers of the U.S. empire will set all that aside to fight Ebola. On the contrary, if American imperialism can press its advantage as a consequence of mobilizing combat forces to Africa, it will do so.

Meanwhile, the U.S. political establishment is whipping up a racist hysteria over the Ebola scare--and it will only get worse now that a case has been discovered in the U.S.

Though public health officials have stressed that the danger of transmission is low in the case of Ebola, that hasn't stopped the hysteria about the outbreak, fueled by frantic statements by the media and politicians.

Tennessee's Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander fanned the flames by likening the Ebola epidemic to "Islamic extremism." "We must take the deadly, dangerous threat of Ebola as seriously as we take ISIS," Alexander told a congressional hearing. "This is an instance where we should be running toward the burning flames with our fireproof suits on." Such rhetoric will only add momentum to the militarized response.

WHAT U.S. government interests are at play in this crisis? They center mainly on the continent's immense natural resources--especially oil--and perceived threats to stability.

Obtaining easy access to those resources is a key concern for U.S. policymakers, along with the corollary--minimizing access for Washington's imperial competitors, namely China. Investment by foreign capital in Africa has skyrocketed over the past decade, which was doubtless a factor in the launch of AFRICOM in 2006.

Obama has embraced expanded opportunities for U.S. investment on the continent, announcing at his Africa Summit in August a total of $33 billion in "new financing to promote U.S. exports to and investments in Africa...and support economic growth across Africa and tens of thousands of U.S. jobs," according to the White House.

The summit provided an explicit expression of U.S. imperial interests, as Foreign Policy in Focus Director John Feffer explained:

Strip away all the modern PR and prettified palaver, and it's an ugly scramble for oil, minerals and markets for U.S. goods. Everyone wants a piece of Africa: drooling outsiders, corrupt insiders, cynical middle men. "We kind of gave Africa to the Europeans first and to the Chinese later, but today, it's wide open for us," General Electric chief executive Jeffrey Immelt said at the summit, inadvertently providing a compact definition of neo-colonialism.

U.S. energy needs are heavily reliant on African resources: more oil destined for the U.S. originates in Africa than the Middle East.

But Africa is both a source of commodities for the West and an important market for U.S. exports, which have increased exponentially over the past decade. With so much at stake, officials in Washington have been concerned to establish U.S. "indispensability"--hence the rapid growth of military projects in Africa, from training local forces to drone bases to support for proxy forces.

Obama has gone further than his predecessor in expanding the military footprint--in the form of a discernible network of installations in strategic locations. As investigative journalist Nick Turse explained, "AFRICOM now annually engages in one kind of activity or another with 49 of that continent's 54 countries."

Chief among justifications for this expanded militarism is the "war on terror" and threats to stability posed by groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shahab in Somalia,whose leader the U.S. managed to assassinate by drone strike at the start of September.

Nigeria offers an important example of imperialist dynamics at work. On the heels of the Islamist group Boko Haram's kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls, the U.S. stepped into the breach. "In the U.S. and Europe," wrote's Alan Maass, "politicians are exploiting the international recycle anti-Islam rhetoric from the 'war on terror'--and to justify, behind a facade of humanitarian concern, the expansion of military operations in Africa that are designed to promote imperialist interests, not the well-being of Nigerians or anyone else on the continent."

The 3,000 troops now set to arrive in West Africa cannot be separated from those concerns with stability in Nigeria and elsewhere in West Africa. "At the end of the day," declared Mike Hryshchyshyn, chief of humanitarian and health activities at AFRICOM, "we see a pandemic or other disaster as a potential security risk. If it occurs on a large-scale magnitude, it has the possibility of eroding basic security institutions and systems. In a worst-case scenario, chaos can break loose."

Writing at the Pambazuka website, Narcisse Jean Alcide Nana pointed out that there is a long and sordid history of militarizing epidemics in Africa--witness the "corporate bonanza for U.S. pharmaceutical corporations" in the fight against AIDS. What's needed instead is a public health solution--"demilitarizing epidemic diseases in West Africa will divert resources to building roads that lead to good hospitals and schools of medicine to train public health personnel for the continent."

The U.S. government's militarization of the Ebola crisis will only make it harder for West Africans most impacted by the situation to decide how to manage it.

Mainstream commentators regularly chide African countries for their failure to establish "good governance" and deal with poverty and epidemics. In reality, U.S. imperialism has sown the seeds of these and many other disasters. Stopping Washington's escalation of armed forces is an urgent part of making possible any real control over decision-making and resources by the majority.

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