By Jude Fernando –
The moral bankruptcy of the global human rights defenders is clearly evident in its apparent urgency, resourcefulness, and political will to act against the Islamic State (IS), but NOT to prevent the rapidly spreading Ebola epidemic. These defenders take human and material risks, make compromises with enemy states, and bypasses established United Nations protocols pertaining to the use of force, for the war against an estimated 30,000 IS fighters. These efforts far exceed the assistance provided for the more than 4,000 victims of Ebola, including 340 healthcare workers, and the potential for 1.5 million people, the majority in poorer countries, to be infected by the Ebola virus, with infection rates doubling every week. A fraction of the cost of airstrikes against IS, without any loss of human life, would suffice to airdrop the necessary resources to check the spread of Ebola and protect healthcare workers.
This appalling predicament of global human rights can be best illuminated by exploring the interconnections between Ebola and IS in a border context. The Ebola virus originated in bats and the ideology of IS originated in the minds of a few ideologues. The surge of human suffering associated with Ebola and IS, however, are inextricably linked with, though not reducible to, imperial ambitions of the rapidly corporatizing, racializing and militarizing global political economy. Many accounts of Ebola and IS based on resource scarcities, bad governance, terrorism, race, and religious explanations are misleading and counter-productive. They distract public attention away from ideologies and institutions that forge these links and necessity of replacing them with them with new ones.
The scarcity of resources for managing the Ebola crisis is a not a natural problem, but a systemic and manufactured one, upon which rests profits of the bio-medical industrial complex. The same is true of IS as its surge didn’t come about “naturally,” but it is closely tied with the military industrial complex and geopolitical interests. Disease and conflict, that often feeds on each other, are a result of manufactured scarcities by these two of the most profitable industrial complexes in the imperial economy. Scarcity allows them to increase the value of resources and make them available to those can pay the highest market price, and is an important means to political ends. This process of resources management is essentially highly dynamic and crisis ridden political project as it necessitates the complete control over people, ideas, identities, and institutions globally.
Airdrops of necessary medical supplies to contain the spread of Ebola and to protect the medical practitioners (a scarce resource in Africa), abundantly available in developed countries, is far easier, less risky, and less expensive than airstrikes against IS. Yet assistance has either not arrived swiftly enough or not at all. Often the industry hold on to resources hoping crisis compel the government or NGOs will buy them.
Generally less then 20 percent of the pledged assistance after disasters actually materialize and pled edges are often political responses to the media hype over humanitarian crisis. Of the required $1 billion to fight Ebola, less than one-fifth has actually been funded. The Pentagon estimates the cost of U.S. air operations in Iraq and Syria at about $7.6 million a day and $58.5 billion for the current fiscal year. Coalition forces have flown 5,060 combat missions as of October 8, 2014. That includes 436 airstrikes as well as reconnaissance and refueling flights. The United States dispatched 500 military personnel to Liberia and planning to send 3000 by the end of the year, certainly not that many doctors. The U.S. Congress justified its delayed approval of the entire amount requested for fighting Ebola due to the lack of a clear strategy, which was not the case with the ‘war against terror’.
Deficit budgets and economic recessions are excuses for reducing funding for Ebola but not for the military industrial complexes. Anticipating the needs of the global war on terror, world governments have invested billions of dollars in military research and development. They have not made such investments for preventing highly predictable potential diseases in poor countries, which inevitably spread due to poverty and lack of health infrastructure and drugs and vaccines. When IS’s potential to unleash terror first surfaced, governments ignored it because the very countries that are now trying to eliminate IS hired and armed IS in their various battles in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The military complex, however, continues to get government contracts and the IS surge provided them with an opportunity to test new weapons. The beheading of three individuals from Western countries-a crime against humanity, provides legitimacy for airstrikes and billion dollar defense contracts, not proposals to address the inequalities that potentially lead to disease and civil unrest.
The 11 largest global drug companies made $711 billion in profits over the past 10 years ending in 2012. Pharmaceutical profits earned in Africa are far more than the amount invested in public health. Global world military expenditure in 2012 is estimated at $1.756 trillion, approximately $249 per person. Sub-Saharan Africa has 24 percent of the global disease burden, but only 3 percent of the world’s health workforce and accounts for just 1 percent of the world’s health expenditure. According to a recent study by Morgan Stanley, shares in the major US arms manufacturers have risen 27,699% over the past fifty years versus 6,777% for the broader market, and in the past three years Raytheon returned 124%, Northrup Grumman 114% and Lockheed Martin 149% to their investors. A study by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), reported the boom in the military business with its export of US weapons abroad increasing more than tripling from $21.4 billion in 2010 to $66.3 billion in 2011. Rich petroleum producing countries in the Middle East are their main customers.
The interlocking interests of the two industrial complexes, not known as ‘Biomedical Military–Industrial Complex’ (BMIC), becomes evident, as the disease and conflict feed on each other, BMIC becomes an economic growth-promising industry, gain access to more resources than other social sectors, politicians rely on BMIC’s patronage, and the defense establishment takes over the responses to health crises. United State’s Department of Defense gave a contract worth $140 million dollars to Tekmira, a Canadian pharmaceutical company, to conduct Ebola research and gave priority to dispatching of military personal to West African over the medical personals.
The transfer of corporate profits to the health sector for development will not adequately compensate for damage to the health sector resulting from the profits accrued from the coercive allocation of resources from meeting peoples’ basic needs to meeting the needs of the corporations. This is exacerbated by the privatization of basic public services, discriminatory pricing and deceptive advertising of medical products by the pharmaceutical companies, the spending of millions of dollars lobbying for social policies and geopolitical relations that are corporate-friendly but detrimental to the well-being of poorer countries.
Since the end of the Cold War, world powers have extracted natural resources from Africa in far greater volumes and at far greater rates than during the colonial period, yet they have invested less than 1% of the wealth they have created with these resources towards addressing health inequalities. Along with resource extraction, the military expenditure of Africa continues to rise, military spending in Africa increased by 8.3 per cent in 2013, reaching an estimated $44.9 billion, whereas overall world military expenditure totaled $1.75 trillion in 2013, a fall of 1.9 per cent in real terms since 2012. Increases in expenditure is justified on the grounds of creating political stability necessary for resource extraction companies in countries where the conflicts are mainly over the control of valuable resources and their leaders profiting from alliances with these companies. These companies and their governments invest an insignificant amount of the profit generated from natural resource-rich Congo, where Ebola originated in the 1970s, into the public health.
China has pledged a paltry $2.3 million to fight Ebola. Twelve other nations have pledged more, the United States contributing the most. Although China is silent on the war against IS, one must remember that the West is the main consumer of Chinese products. Interestingly, applying the radical rhetoric of imperialism as a reason for the spread of Ebola and IS to the West, only provides legitimacy to the IS’s “West vs. the non-West” binary that distracts people’s attention away from political, economic, and military aspirations equally shared by Western and non-western countries.
Although Ebola originated in the Congo in 1970, research and development for a vaccine and drug treatments is slow, as pharmaceutical companies do not find it profitable. Ebola appears mostly in African countries where people cannot afford to pay market prices. Although this situation is beginning to change as the virus begins to spread to developed countries, progress is slow due to the secrecy of profit-minded pharmaceutical companies, inevitable in a world where laws are more protective of patent rights than human life. Governments drag their feet in approving aid and vaccines, as they are highly politicized bureaucracies subservient to pharmaceutical lobbies rather than to the general public. Although President Obama has lauded the work of volunteer organizations (e.g. Doctors Without Borders), for doing “God’s work” and ‘keeping others safe”, his administration has done nothing to help poor countries access low-cost generic versions of expensive name-brand medications, despite persistent calls from Doctors Without Borders, reported in the Huntington Post. The potential for a surge of Ebola in developed countries is an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to test vaccines on humans and accelerate the development of drugs when the governments and aid agencies are willing to pay exorbitant market prices.
Concern for global health security is still largely a European prerogative as evident in Professor David Heymann’s, (the head of the Centre on Global Health Security at Chatham House, in the United Kingdom) claim that European countries understand the potential for the spread of Ebola and have made preparations for that eventuality in Europe. No-one has even contemplated such preparations in African countries.
The rapid spread of Ebola is found in countries where public investments in social and economic development have declined since the introduction of structural adjustment programs (SAPs) used by international financial institutions (IFIs), such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, to promote neoliberalism’s market fundamentalism. Public sector expenditures, after the introduction of SAPs in these countries, completely disguise the fact that they follow market rationality by corporatizing public sector institutions and subcontracting their services to the private sector. SAP is a racialized and militarized project. When it is integrated into national security imperatives it colonizes the livelihoods of the most vulnerable minorities and forces them to bear a disproportionate share of the negative consequences of SAP and marginalize their political projects for equality and justice, all in the name of development. Such communities, often having suffered through prolonged periods of war, become more vulnerable to disease and political exploitation by the extremists, and prolong period of militarization by the state even after extremists are defeated.
Studies have shown that SAP policies of eliminating so-called excesses in pubic investments have slowed improvements in or worsened the health status of most populations. This has increased the incidence of infectious diseases and weakened or destroyed the institutional and fiscal infrastructure to deal with these diseases. Only when Ebola appeared threatened to become a global pandemic, did the World Bank pledge $ 100 million to train healthcare workers. In the UK 900 people have volunteered to go to Africa while the African Union has pledged 2,000 people, none of whom have yet left, because the governments ‘are unable to provide evacuation facilities if these healthcare workers get ill, as these facilities are now subcontracted to private companies.
Even in the United States, the reduction of investments in public health and the increasing number of poor citizens unable to afford health insurance (a majority of whom are people of color), is primarily responsible for the spread of infectious diseases. The same politicians opposed to increased expenditure on healthcare, do not hesitate to fund ‘the war on terror’, while criticizing President Obama’s policies to combat Ebola, and delaying aid allocations for Ebola. For these politicians and neoliberal institutions, good health and human rights are simply trickle-down effects of the health and military industrial complexes that function according to market rationality and geopolitical interests. The ideologies and practices of these politicians and institutions never get labeled as extremists and thus incur world condemnation, because dismantling public health facilities and arming and using IS, are not criminal acts.
From Ebola and IS to Failed States
Neoliberal institutions will not hesitate to classify Ebola-affected countries as “failed states” when the disease depletes and intensifies the competition for resources necessary for subsistence, and/or population displacement resulting in political and economic instability and conflict. The indications are that IS is likely to surge in countries occupied by foreign armies then abruptly withdrawn before those countries were stabilized. Already stretched health care facilities and population displacement will increase the rapid spread of disease in these countries.
Failed states are product of the imperial economy and they in turn opportunities for the same economy as failure make them more vulnerable exploitation of resources and people by corporations and subjecting them to the imperatives of a global war against terror.
Although corruption in the public sector is a major reason for delays in resource transfers to poor countries, the exploitative practices of these corporations that involve political and economic maneuvering are dubbed as networking, and they do not have the equal moral condemnation as corruption. The demand for corruption- free and accountable governance in the failed states is not primarily about safeguarding basic human rights, but an instrument to discipline these states to adapt their economies to neoliberal rationality. It might achieve political stability, but it ignores how these adaptations have resulted in the militarization of these countries, which are often ruled by dictators and despots. The fear of Ebola becoming a bio-terrorist weapon against the West is likely to provide legitimacy to the framing of the disease as a threat to national security and global peace, and it will take the focus away from the economic, political, and racial determinants of the spread and responses to Ebola and IS.
Good Samaritans Deprived
In Africa, the locals, especially women, are at the forefront of the Ebola epidemic, as they take care of Ebola patients and serve as sole breadwinners, and some remain free of Ebola despite their close contact with infected family members. These efforts become human-interest stories in popular media, yet the needs of these families seem unworthy of international aid. The African Media Initiative reported that reaching out to local communities is also hampered by fear and misinformation. This is claiming a new kind of victim, including the three journalists and five local health workers killed in Guinea because locals believed that outsiders and the West caused the disease. These conspiracy theories are meaningful to people when they explain the deprivations they experience on a daily basis.
Hundreds of volunteers are unable to reach Ebola affected countries because the insurance companies are refusing to pay for the transportation of Ebola victims; including medical personnel. The cancelation of flights to Africa and the closing of borders in African countries further obstruct their domestic responses. Isolation will only increase the surge of the disease and conflict over scarce resources. Then maintaining law and order will take precedence over securing peoples basic needs. Such a situation is ripe for military intervention and the arming of local groups to fight the “extremists” who now become a menace to the entire world. Interestingly, the United States seems to have more military personnel in West Africa than medical professionals.
Geopolitics and subcontracting of government services to the private sector hamper cooperation between states in mitigating Ebola, including the World Health Organization (WHO). While the rest of the world has made financial pledges to fight Ebola, with the United States at the top of the list, Cuba, located 4,500 miles away from West Africa and less developed according to mainstream economic indicators, sent the largest number of doctors and healthcare professionals to Ebola-affected countries. They have already begun to treat patients and train local health professionals. Cuba’s response is the most robust and boldest contribution to Ebola containment efforts in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, a fact acknowledged even by John Kerry and other officials in Washington.
Cuba has historically played a leading role in providing medical personnel in the aftermath of disasters, and such healthcare workers are highly competent. However, Jose Luis Fabio, the WHO’s representative in Havana, said, “Cuban efforts are stymied by the United States embargo that prevents Cuba from acquiring modem equipment and medical supplies.” According to a New York Times editorial (19 October), the WHO is uncertain about means to evacuate Cuban health workers if they are infected.
Cuba’s response to Ebola is unique because it’s medical services are not controlled by market rationality, meaning the value of its resources is measured in social as opposed to monetary terms, and it’s services are available for those who need it, rather than for those willing and able to pay. Cuban medical services have commercial value only when they have to rely on the biomedical industrial complex. Similarly, its social policies are not beholden to the bio-medical or the military industrial complex. Geopolitics is not a hindrance for Cuba to collaborate in serving humanitarian crises even with its enemy states. The legitimacy of the Cuban state is radically different from the rest of the world.
I am an African, not a virus. I am a Muslim not the IS
Pan-European panic over Ebola and IS reveals more about deep rooted racism and xenophobia in the society against Africans and Muslims than anxiety over disease and terrorism. Pan-European panic over Ebola and IS reveals more about deep rooted racism and xenophobia in the society against Africans and Muslims than anxiety over the disease and terrorism. Racism and xenophobia leads to far reaching consequences: cripples competent response to crises, unevenly distribute the access of benefits of science, legal, and social services between different social groups; stifles competent collective responses to crises, and fuel tensions between communities, and provide legitimacy for framing the crises primarily as in a security issue.
We must acknowledge that quarantine is not racist; it’s rational. A virus does not travel on its own, but via human agency. Examples of how racism overshadows the way the society thinks and acts upon Ebola abound. There are fundamental differences in the way different victims of Ebola are described, at least until the media begin to highlight the racism involved in such descriptions. Joel Baden and Candida Moss reported “that it [the DA’s office in Texas] was contemplating charging Duncan with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, for having “exposed the public to a deadly virus knowingly which would be criminal intent”. The Washington Post ran an op-ed after Duncan’s diagnosis declaring that “airports should be screening for Ebola the same way they screen for terrorists.” Duncan was elevated from being a “victim of a deadly disease to being the wielder of a deadly weapon,” a terrorist.
Scientific reasoning had no place in the decision of the Navarro College in Texas to not accept international students from countries with confirmed Ebola cases. A young Guinean football player was driven off the pitch in Pennsylvania following chants of “Ebola” from the opposing team. The Guardian reported that a landlord in Norwich, United Kingdom, refused housing for a student from Sierra Leone saying that “due to the epidemic, we have decided not to accept anyone that has been anywhere near the outbreak.” In The Raw Story, David Edwards wrote some immigrants living in the same neighborhood as Duncan’s family have been turned away from their jobs, while others have been refused service in restaurants.
When a black West African woman, who had not been in an Ebola affected region, collapsed at a business meeting in Berlin, German police dispatched more than 60 officers and firefighters and barricaded the building, isolating some 600 employees. Many European countries have stopped flights from Ebola-affected African countries, but not from Texas, Maine or Spain. The potential for Anti-Black racism trying to capitalize on fear of Ebola is evident when Black pro-Palestinian activists in Los Angeles were attacked by a pro-Israel counter protester who told them “take your Ebola a*s and get out.” Some conservative politicians in the US connected Ebola spread in the US with the failure of the Obama administration to protect its borders from immigrants.
We must acknowledge and support the brave and committed work individuals, such as Drs. Brantley and Writebol who worked in Africa and Dr, Brantley who donated plasma to Ebola patients. Brantley and Writebol were successfully treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and Sacra Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, respectively, as these hospitals have been preparing to treat Ebola for some time. The same treatment was not available for medical practitioners in Africa; none of them were airlifted to Western countries. Thomas Duncan, the Liberian living in Texas and the first person in the U.S. diagnosed with Ebola. Duncan was a poor person of color who had no health insurance, was subject to ‘careless’ treatment in the emergency room, where people without insurance generally go.
All those who were in contact with Duncan were quarantined. But, Kaci Hickox, a brave white nurse who returned from African had a different experience. A judge on in Main, USA, ruled in favor of Hickox who defied quarantine restrictions after she returned to the US. Health officials failed to prove scientifically the need for the enforcement of such strict quarantine procedures. Instead she is subject to “direct active monitoring.” For these three, airlines did not cancel flights from their neighborhoods, and he media glorified them as heroes.
The language and images in the news coverage of Ebola invokes the xenophobic and racial thinking that Africa is the ‘Dark Continent’ where diseases emanate from, and “African” as a ‘scary African savage” living in an continent of “undivided repository of degeneration.” Media stories more emphasis on racism pertaining to Ebola, rather than discussing Ebola as a public health issue, which would compel them to engage with economic and political institutions responsible for the collapse of the public health system and the fact that people of color suffer more from the collapse than the others. The media does not hesitate to condemn the racist treatment of people of color and even tried to hold those accountable for it, but not the oppressive nature of the privileges enjoyed by the more dominant races. Such stories have a greater reception precisely because they give an opportunity for the privileged to extend their humanitarian help to the underprivileged without creating a space to think about privilege as a form of oppression, which would then point to the inequalities of power between the dominant and oppressed groups-the most critical aspect of the racial divide that sustains privilege.
Anxiety over Ebola and IS terror is understandable, but it can only be fully comprehended and dealt with when a society is willing to come to terms with how racialized the anxiety is. The fundamental problem today is that no one thinks they are racist, but racism persists everywhere and surfaces in its most vulgar forms in crises like Ebola and IS. Perhaps the reason for the dislike of racism in today’s hyper-politically correct society has to do with fact that it is only concerned with inclusive language and symbolism; hence it is primarily about consciousness, and not in systems of power. Moreover, mastery of politically correct language and racially inclusive public spaces often undermines transformative discourse of racism, because they refuse to transform the asymmetric power relations. Racism is not simply a matter of prejudice limited to white supremacists, but is systemic and structured, based on ‘white privilege’.
Only when the politically correct privileged class, who don’t consider themselves racists, are willing to transform these unequal relations of wealth and power, can we begin to think meaningfully about equal human rights. However, this presupposes they realize how the privilege they enjoy in their everyday lives is predicated upon the same ideologies and institutions held by those they view as racists. Anti-racist action is superficial as long as they are only concerned with helping the victims of racism, not transforming the oppressive nature of their privileged wellbeing.
The origins of IS lay not in Islam, nor the origins of Islam in IS. The terrain between religious faith and religious violence is messy, and filled with contradictions and ambiguities.
The undeniable violence committed by IS in the name of religion requires a careful examination of the place of religion in people’s lives, and why people apply various interpretations of religion to their respective engagement with the social, economic and political affairs of the society. People’s faith in religion predates and ‘autonomous’ from IS. When violence of IS is sufficient to make all Muslims suspects in complicity with IS and thus, profiling of Muslims is perceived as an attack on their faith. The secularists undermine secularism when they fail to provide space for religion as they do for other ideologies or reduce religious faith to material determinants, and their position inadvertently contributes to racial profiling of people because of their religious faith.
At the same time, people’s interpretations of religion is also influenced by their economic, political, and social experiences resulting from colonialism, racism, capitalism, and the global war against terror. How people come to terms with these experiences are influential in defining their relations with the extremist of their faith. Similarly, while religious convictions provide a space for interfaith harmony instrumental in helping the victims of Ebola and IS, such harmony is superficial when it is oblivious to, or keeps silent about the institutions that provides legitimacy to those forces responsible for inequalities and injustices suffered by the victims..
Fear of Islam (Islamophobia) has more to do with misconceptions, racism and prejudice, than with the IS terror. The justification for war against IS as being against a small group of extremists who do not represent the majority of Muslims is a claim that disguises the extent to which anti-Islamism is rooted in everyday practices of Western societies in general. Such justifications also ignore the importance of anti-Islamism for the popular legitimacy of non-Islamic states and how non-Islamic religions provide legitimacy for the very institutions that seek economic and political control over Islamic countries.
Similarly, the fear of the West (Westphopbia) cannot be entirely explicable in terms of Western countries’ exploitation of the Islamic countries, but is closely linked with relations between states and societies within them. Capitalist modernity is a project of many Islamic countries as much as it is of the Western states. In fact, it is a collaborative project between them, which is well illustrated by their collaborations in the petroleum and defense industries- the entire economy for that matter. Those Islamic states (such as Iran) that project opposition to Western capitalist modernity are not so much opposing capitalist modernity, as providing it with an indigenous outlook, and thereby secure the benefits for the ruling classes of these countries, and project public dissent against such privileges of the ruling class elsewhere.
Similarly some of these states, when it is important for their respective popular legitimacy, have often turned a blind eye to discrimination and violence against vulnerable minorities within their own countries in the name of religion, while simply passing the blame for such abuses onto ‘extremists’. IS, like the Al Qaida, is no exception. It’s history shows that it has too has been intricately connected with such state power, including those now at war with them (e.g. Iran, Iraq, and Syria)
While we should condemn human rights violations and the displacement of minorities (e.g. Christians, Kurds, and Yadizi’s) by the IS, we must keep in mind such violations were not a concern of those now at war against IS when it was useful for their economic and geopolitical pursuits. The unity between these two phobias of Islamophobia and Westaphobia is often found when states are competing for control and benefits from the imperial economy and suppress dissent against the imperial economy. These twin phobias are two sides of the same coin when their respective proponents use them to pass the blame for deprivations and abuses to the ‘other side,’ and to escape their respective responsibilities for human rights abuses. These realities often escape highly polarized accounts of human rights violations by the Western and Islamic countries.
The world’s experience with Ebola and IS in many ways parallels that of HIV–AIDS and Al Qaida. Disease outbreaks and terrorist violence is likely to continue and become normalized as part of everyday life. Vulnerable minorities (Kurds, Yadizi’s and Christians) will be displaced, and even threatened with extinction, and their political projects for freedom pushed to the margins, despite the fact that they were the infantry fighters (e.g. Kurds) that supported the airstrikes. The affected regions will become poorer, their population will deplete, their economies will be destroyed and become politically unstable and will eternally be failed states. Multinational corporations and powerful nations will continue to exhaust these nations of their natural resources and assume even greater control over the economic and political affairs of these countries. Non-governmental organizations will continue to agitate for more resources, but are unlikely to challenge the institutions responsible for disease and violence. Billion dollar investments from the United Nations is unlikely to make a difference as its structure does not permit it to challenge the institutions that are most responsible for the spread of Ebola and IS. Aid agencies, NGOs, corporations, become the main beneficiaries of investments to fight Ebola and IS, and the intended beneficiaries of these investments become victims, criminals, and terrorists.
Such is the predicament of a world run by racialized and militarized neoliberal institutions that refuses to place the equal worth and dignity of all humans at the center of safeguarding human rights. If the past is any guide, it would be churlish to accept that these institutions responsible for the surge of Ebola and IS and prevent lasting responses to them, will change on their own, due to internal contradictions and crises within. What is more likely is the reproduction of these institutions under various guises, often by using the same language and labor of their critics. Hence, these institutions have to be pushed out of the mainstream. Those privileged classes will never voluntary relinquish their wealth and power, they have to be dispossessed. The need of the hour is a political movement with a coherent subjectivity and ideology around which all those concerned with human rights, can coalesce.