The sad reality is that African victims continue to suffer an excruciating death, while westerners are flown out, treated and become near-celebrities
The life of a westerner is judged to be of greater worth than that of a black African – and by a number of factors, too. That it’s such a statement of the obvious, rendered glib, met with an instinctive “Well, duh”, simply underlines the point. And so it is unsurprising that the case of Ebola in the US should attract headlines. We do not know yet whether the patient is a US citizen – but the widespread media attention is due to the threat being transported to US soil and therefore putting westerners at risk.
That is not to belittle the suffering of the victim, and I hope the treatment that has been successful with the westerners who contracted the virus returns them to good health. But in due course, we will undoubtedly learn more personal details about this victim treated in a Dallas hospital than we know about the 3,000-plus Africans who have so far perished.
When aid workers have succumbed to Ebola, they have been invariably flown out and given ZMapp, an experimental drug that seems to have saved their lives. British nurse William Pooley is one and – having been flown out and saved – he wants to return. But this treatment is denied to Africans dying from an agonising hemorrhagic fever, which leaves victims bleeding on both the outside and the inside.
One defence of this practice is straightforward. The safety and effectiveness of ZMapp has not been proven through clinical trials. For westerners to start using such a drug on African victims – with consequences we cannot be entirely confident about – would risk claims that pharmaceutical companies are using Liberians and Sierra Leoneans as experimental fodder. But it has, after all, already been judged to be worth using on westerners. No wonder human rights activists in Africa are saying that it proves that “the life of an African is less valuable”.
My colleague Joseph Harker wrote two weeks ago about his brother-in-law’s sister, Olivet Buck, a Sierra Leonean doctor risking her life to help the dying. When she contracted the disease, a campaign was mounted to evacuate her to Germany where a hospital in Hamburg was ready to take her. But the World Health Organisation refused to fund such a lifesaving move, and Dr Buck died.
According to Médecins Sans Frontières, the western response has been “lethally inadequate”. But you can be sure that if such an epidemic had broken out in, say, Chicago, Paris or Rome, every possible resource available to the western medical world would be thrown at the problem.
But instead the western response too often has been “what about us?”. The Bloomberg Businessweek carries an alarmist Ebola Is Coming front cover. This is a nonsense. Ebola is a disease of poverty. It is very difficult to spread, and depends on direct contact with the bodily fluids of the infected, rather than being an airborne (and thus catastrophic) illness. If Liberia had a functioning public health system, the epidemic would be shut down. It needs trained health workers, isolation wards and protective gear to combat it – infrastructure that, in our grossly unequal world, simply is not there in a countries like Liberia or Sierra Leone. In Nigeria and Senegal, where there is a far more effective public health system, the countries appear to have put a stop to the onward march of Ebola. The disease has no real chance of spreading in western countries, because any victims would be quickly isolated and treated.
The sad reality is that African victims will continue to suffer an excruciating death, denied of basic dignity, drowning in their own fluids. As they do so, they will remain nameless and forgotten, except to their forever mourning relatives. Westerners, on the other hand, will be flown out, treated and become near-celebrities. Perhaps some are resigned to such a disparity, believing that this is the inevitable way of the world. I tend to differ: it is perverse, and it is unjust.