By Bernard Wainaina
Where have all the people gone, long time passing?
Where have all the people gone, long time ago?
Where have all the people gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?
In its youth, Ebola had to play a slow game of chess.
It kept on being blocked by rapid responses by heroic health teams in remote jungle areas of central Africa.
Now that it has found its way at last into teeming slums and broken health systems, it can run like sprinter Usain Bolt.
It was always bound to get there.
The grossly high paid bureaucrats at the World Health Organisation (WHO) who have great legal power and resources entrusted in them, and who now wring their hands in despair
below the mists of Geneva, have known about Ebola for many years.
Ebola may seem new, but the slums of Monrovia and Freetown are not.
Neither is the acute shortage of health
workers in the Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
In fact, Ebola is not such a new virus.
Its discovery predates HIV.
It has been known about since being ‘discovered’ by Peter Piot in 1976.
But since then it has been portrayed as an exotic virus.
Sensationalist reporting misrepresented it as incurable and 99% fatal, thereby permitting a premature surrender into further medical investigation.
Yet a report in the British Sunday Times (12/10/14), cited a Cambridge University zoologist as saying that “it is quite possible to design a vaccine against this disease” but reported that applications to conduct further
research on Ebola were rebuffed because “nobody has been willing to spend the twenty million pounds or so needed to get vaccines through trial and production”.
For the world powers that be, the fact that it was largely confined to the jungles of central Africa kept it out of harm’s way.
The heroic and taken for granted efforts of the few medics who did venture to treat and contain it allowed a further level of complacency.
Now that complacency is shattered.
The US government is moving, the EU is moving, the WHO is moving.
But the growing alarm over Ebola seems less to do with sympathy with affected and dying people, the destruction of already ravaged
economies, but much more to do with Western countries fears of it making inroads into their own populations and economies.
This is why AIDS and Ebola have something else in common.
Ultimately their control and treatment boils down to issues of democracy, equality and good governance.
HIV, when it was first discovered in the early 1980s, also elicited the level of fear, panic and stigma now being witnessed in relation to Ebola.
The ingredient that changed that was the rise of activists from affected communities and their demand that human rights principles drive the response to HIV.
In two decades a globally connected activist movement forced the acceleration of scientific research and the development of new medicines; it demanded equality of access to these medicines, insisted that health systems were funded.
As a result it brought about the most rapid and far-reaching response in history to any disease.
In the light of this and other demonstrations of people’s power the importance of civil society is now globally acknowledged – or at least it gets a lot of lip service.
Interestingly, on 23 September 2014, US President Obama issued an unprecedented
‘ Presidential Memorandum on civil society’ recognising that:
Through civil society, citizens come together to hold their leaders accountable and address challenges that governments cannot tackle alone. Civil society organisations…often drive innovations and develop new ideas and approaches to solve social, economic, and
political problems that governments can apply on a larger scale.
And yet civil society is precisely what is missing from Liberia,Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Perhaps it is because these countries have just emerged from war or because they are dictatorships.
But it is the absence of a strong independent civil society that demands better health systems and campaigns for human rights that creates fertile ground for epidemics such as Ebola.
For example, Sierra Leone may be one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is not entirely devoid of resources that could
be used for health care, sanitation or housing.
According to the IMF, it experienced economic growth of 20% in 2013.
Yet half its population still lives on $1.25 per day.
Because there is no accountability of government and no civil society to demand it.
In the last few weeks one of the most prominent voices on the Ebola virus has been that of Laurie Garrett (@Laurie_Garrett), a journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for her reporting on Ebola. In her 1994 book, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging
Diseases in a World Out of Balance, Garrett warned that there were 21 million people on earth “living under conditions ideal for microbial emergence.”
Garrett described these conditions as being “denied governmental representation that might improve their lot; starving; without safe, permanent housing; lacking nearly all forms of basic health care or sanitation”.
She concluded her 600-page tome as follows:
While the human race battles itself, fighting over ever more crowded turf and scarcer resources, the advantage moves to the microbes’ court. They are our predators and they will be victorious if we, Homo sapiens, do not learn how to live in a rational global village that affords the microbes few opportunities.
It’s either that or we brace ourselves for the coming plague.
Was she heard?
Which brings me back to the lessons of HIV.
One of the foremost organisations that brought it under control is the Treatment Action Campaign.
People’s power organised through TAC helped saved two million lives.
People’s power is still needed to get millions more onto treatment and tackle the social
conditions that drive HIV, Ebola and microbes we haven’t even got names for.
In 2004 TAC was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.
To do its work, it needs a budget of $40 million a year.
In global terms this is small, small change.
$40 million is less than the amount spent on the annual opening of Parliament; less than Christiano Ronaldo earns in a year; it is a percentage of a percentage of the value of daily transactions on the NSE.
It’s small change for big change.
Yet TAC has raised just one quarter of that for 2015.
There’s a demand for social justice, but no market for it.
We must make the market.
So think about it this way: if 5,000 good citizens in the world could be persuaded to donate $500 per month to TAC, that would raise $30 million per year.
It would be a demonstration of your empathy, solidarity and just plain humanity.
It would be an investment in human rights and
Now ask yourself: Is that beyond all of us in a World under a threat of a single outbreak of Ebola in Africa?
What’s stopping the world from seeing Ebola as a threat to the world other than a disease of poor Africans?
“The African Story as told by Africans”.©African News Digest®