Workers Vanguard No. 1053
3 October 2014
U.S. Troops Out of Liberia!
The Ebola Crisis and the Imperialist Rape of Africa
SEPTEMBER 29—The deadliest Ebola outbreak in history is ravaging the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, spreading rapidly as the number of infections doubles every two to three weeks. Since the outbreak was first reported in March, the official count of those infected is over 6,000 as we go to press, with around half of those cases resulting in death. Those numbers are a vast underestimation, particularly given the remoteness of many of the affected areas and non-systematic reporting. Infection clusters have been detected in Nigeria and Senegal. Scientists project that up to 1.4 million people could be infected by early next year, with the potential for the disease to become a permanent feature of life in West Africa.
Spurring the exponential spread of Ebola are the misery, poverty and entrenched backwardness that are the legacy of colonial rule and imperialist pillage. Looted by the Western capitalist powers, the affected countries are largely rural, with scant technology and infrastructure, limited education and skeletal health care systems. The few health workers in the region have been fighting heroically, short of equipment, facilities and medicine and with little to no access to electricity and clean water. Hundreds of health care providers, including many volunteers, have contracted the virus.
After contemptuously ignoring pleas for medical aid and personnel for months, in mid September President Obama announced the deployment of 3,000 U.S. troops to Liberia. There is a sinister reality behind Washington’s professed change of heart. Presenting Ebola as a global security threat, Obama made clear his motivation for intervening militarily: to curb the political and economic “ripple effects” that the spread of the virus could have on the region and beyond. His calling Ebola a “national security priority” is a declaration of U.S. intent to limit the epidemic to Africans and not let it reach American shores.
The profoundly cynical pledge to combat Ebola came packaged with $750 million to set up a military command center and construct medical treatment facilities. But military spokesmen admit that the treatment centers will not be up and running for months. Meanwhile, the “staging area” being set up in Senegal to train aid providers and distribute supplies assumes that there actually are personnel to train and that the necessary food, water and goods exist and can actually reach people. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby announced that the U.S. is committed to a military mission for a minimum of six months in which troops will not “come into contact with patients.”
In stark contrast to the U.S. imperialists, the Cuban and Chinese deformed workers states have responded generously with crucially needed aid. Cuba is dispatching 461 physicians, epidemiologists and other health professionals. China, which has close to 20,000 citizens working and living in the three most affected countries, is contributing millions in financial aid and increasing the number of its medical personnel in Sierra Leone. What the U.S. is offering is troops, i.e., further terror.
Washington has set up its Ebola command headquarters in its most servile African client state, Liberia, much to the relief of the country’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. A U.S. toady, Sirleaf has faced increasing strife and political opposition, especially after imposing a nationwide curfew and sending troops to cordon off the densely populated slum of West Point in the capital, Monrovia. As angry residents tried to break out in search of food, they were met with soldiers’ bullets that killed a 15-year-old boy. Liberia is still reeling from 14 years of civil war, ending in 2003, in which a quarter of a million people were killed. The already impoverished country was left in ruins, with a population bitterly divided and heavily armed.
Now comes the U.S. military intervention, which is hailed by Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF), the organization leading treatment efforts on the ground. It is a grotesque lie that the U.S. military—drenched in the blood of untold millions of its victims around the world—can be a force for “humanitarian” relief. The current U.S. mission in West Africa evokes a history of depredations masquerading as “relief” and “peacekeeping,” from the 1992-93 occupation of Somalia during its famine to the 2003 intervention in Liberia. In his announcement, Obama referred to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when tens of thousands of U.S. troops were dispatched to the devastated Caribbean island. Working alongside UN “peacekeepers” to block aid efforts and put down social unrest, their main role was to prevent desperate Haitians from fleeing to the U.S. In both Liberia and Haiti, thousands of UN military and police personnel remain to enforce imperialist “order.”
The Ebola Nightmare
Extremely lethal, Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever caused by a group of threadlike viruses known as filoviruses. When the Ebola-Zaire strain first hit Zaire in 1976, it killed nearly 90 percent of its victims, often within days. Since then, there have been some two dozen outbreaks in Central and West Africa. The virus is highly contagious, spreading among humans through contact with blood, saliva, urine and other bodily fluids. The early flu-like symptoms are similar to those of malaria, dengue fever and other tropical diseases. As the virus worsens, hemorrhaging leads to multiple organ failure.
Though it came on the scene nearly 40 years ago, Ebola was not deemed a moneymaker for the profit-gouging pharmaceutical behemoths. With no drug or vaccine yet proven effective for humans, the only way to increase survival rates is with immediate palliative treatment. Safe and sterile quarantine must be coupled with consistent medical attention, including rehydration and the control of secondary infections. During the current outbreak, simple measures that could have contained the disease—from isolating patients and tracing contacts to educating the public—were not taken. If Ebola had broken out in the advanced capitalist world, all hands would have been on deck and it would not have been difficult to contain the virus. Two American missionaries infected in July—an event that brought the media out of its somnambulant state—survived after receiving treatment and experimental drugs in the U.S. This kind of care was not accorded to Olivet Buck, a Sierra Leonean doctor who was refused evacuation to Germany and died.
In the imperialists’ shattered and destitute neocolonies, getting the necessary top-notch care is as likely as squeezing blood from a stone. Before the Ebola outbreak, Liberia had one doctor per 70,000 residents; Sierra Leone one per 45,000; Guinea one per 10,000. Only a small percentage of the population has access to proper sanitation. Though there are major rivers in the region, the lack of water treatment facilities leaves much of the population with little access to clean water. The majority ekes out a living on less than one dollar a day, and half the population is illiterate.
The region has some of the world’s highest maternal as well as infant mortality rates; children regularly die of malnutrition and easily treatable conditions like pneumonia and diarrhea. Now, the overstretched and overflowing hospitals and treatment centers have turned into deathtraps. Public health has further collapsed: malaria and other medical conditions are being left untreated while pregnant women are giving birth on the streets.
Poverty contributed directly to the West African Ebola outbreak. With no access to safely processed food, villagers depend on game such as chimpanzees, monkeys and forest antelopes that can carry the virus. It is thought that such animals pick up the virus from fruit bats, which seem to be Ebola’s natural reservoir. Earlier occurrences of Ebola were in remote villages, with little chance of spreading; they ran their course with relatively few fatalities. Those who were infected but survived no longer carried the virus. In the current outbreak, however, the disease is spiraling out of control, spreading to teeming urban centers and across borders.
Diseases and infections will never completely disappear. It is an aspect of nature that in order to survive, microbes will mutate and evolve to find an ecological niche in humans and other animals. But little is “natural” about the Ebola crisis today, any more than was the spread of AIDS and its disproportionate death rates that continue to devastate sub-Saharan Africa. The conditions leading to the spread of these diseases were laid down by centuries of slave trade, colonial domination and imperialist plunder that stifled economic development and tore apart the continent’s social fabric.
Heart of Darkness:
Colonial Rule in Africa
The Atlantic slave trade, which laid the foundations for much of European as well as American capitalism, devastated large swaths of Africa from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Vast regions were depopulated as some 12 million Africans were seized and taken across the notorious Middle Passage to the Americas.
By the late 1800s, the rapid expansion of world trade fueled competition between the European capitalist powers to establish spheres of influence to control land, markets and sources of cheap labor and raw materials—this was the dawn of capitalist imperialism. Ripping up Africa’s agrarian and nomadic societies, the British tried to create an East African empire linking Cape Town to Cairo by rail and telegraph, the French sought to spike it by creating an east-to-west colonial belt across central Africa, and the Italians and Germans grabbed bites of whatever was left. Meanwhile, the monstrous King Leopold II of Belgium carved out a regime of terror in the Congo, under which some eight million Africans died. The Dinka people of southern Sudan refer to this period as “the time when the world was spoilt.”
In The Race to Fashoda (1987), David Levering Lewis describes how the colonial scramble opened the continent to “institutional chaos, collective panic, and disease and famine.” Where communities were geographically stable, some Africans had developed a degree of resistance to certain tropical diseases such as malaria. The large-scale displacement of populations acted to negate this resistance. In the late 19th century, raids, migrations and agricultural wastage resulting from European encroachment opened much of the Congo basin to the tsetse fly, which devastated whole peoples with sleeping sickness. Shortly after the arrival of British colonists in what is now Uganda, there was an explosion of epidemics like gonorrhea and syphilis, followed by plague and smallpox.
What medical provision the colonialists offered was meant to protect the lives of Europeans, particularly soldiers. The imperialists’ “contributions” to African epidemics continued into the 20th century. In The Origins of AIDS (2011), Jacques Pepin, a professor of microbiology and infectious diseases, noted that Belgian and French efforts to protect European settlers from tropical disease involved using unsterilized syringes and needles to inject native populations with medicine and vaccines. The contaminated equipment likely contributed to the spread of HIV and other deadly diseases.
Lewis observed: “After the collapse and chaos spawned by the intruders would come forced labor and total economic subordination—would come an Africa that could be looked upon by Europeans as being in as desperate need of European uplift as the gospel the White Man’s Burden proclaimed.” Colonial overlords drew arbitrary borders that divided tribal peoples while lumping together historically antagonistic peoples in a single state. When the British rulers boasted that the sun never set on their empire, Ernest Jones, leader of the radical proletarian Chartist movement of the mid 19th century, aptly added, “but the blood never dries.” In their policy of divide to better subjugate, the colonial rulers fomented ethnic, religious and regional divisions, sowing the seeds for the bloody post-independence civil wars that still rage in many parts of the continent.
The portrayal of Africa as an uncivilized, diseased wasteland is wielded to justify everything from imperialist intervention to the racist exclusion of migrants. Newsweek (29 August) featured a cover story on Ebola with the picture of a chimp, conjuring up the racist notion of a continent of ape-like savages. The article’s title, “Smuggled Bushmeat Is Ebola’s Back Door to America,” promoted the lie that Africans are trafficking in Ebola-contaminated meat. The baseless story had no other purpose than to whip up panic and bolster fears of an imminent outbreak in the U.S.
and Tinpot Rulers
The three West African countries where Ebola is today wreaking havoc, while rich in resources, rank among the world’s poorest. The former French colony of Guinea is the world’s top exporter of bauxite, the raw material used in making aluminum, and also has plenty of gold, diamonds, uranium and offshore oil. Sierra Leone, a former British colony, and Liberia have significant reserves of rubber, iron ore and diamonds. Virtually all of the raw material is carted off by foreign corporate giants.
In the aftermath of World War II, the British and French imperialists ended direct rule, preferring neocolonial bondage under local overseers. The corrupt, brutal tribal-based ruling cliques employ the whip against the populations on behalf of their American and European imperialist masters, on whom they rely for protection. Their regimes reinforce ethnic divisions and promote backward, sometimes horrific social practices. Thus Kenyan nationalist president Jomo Kenyatta defended female genital mutilation as part of “African culture.”
During the Cold War, the central preoccupation of the imperialists in Africa was to curtail the influence of the Soviet Union. To counter Soviet economic and military aid to nationalist movements and bourgeois nationalist leaders like Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, the U.S. and its allies propped up a host of brutal despots like Mobutu in Zaire while funding and arming reactionary insurgents, e.g., in Angola and Mozambique. From its headquarters in Monrovia, the CIA ran agents, subverted governments and organized coups throughout the continent. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers state, Washington cut the economic cord. The International Monetary Fund demanded debt payment on starvation terms, further destroying the fragile economies of those societies.
The U.S. hold over Liberia began when the country was carved out in the early 19th century, as black freedmen and manumitted slaves from the U.S. were shipped there to establish the Republic of Liberia. Since then, black American colonists and their descendants (Americo-Liberians) have held sway over the indigenous population. In the 1920s, the Firestone Rubber Company effectively took over Liberia and ran it like a slave plantation.
In recent decades, diamonds and timber bankrolled warlords like Charles Taylor, who was ousted as president at the end of the Liberian civil war. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf originally supported Taylor but turned against him, eventually being elected president in 2005 with a promise to end corruption and rebuild the country. Sirleaf was the only African head of state to offer territory for the U.S. to establish a headquarters for its Africa Command (Africom), which operates out of Germany. She was granted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 after handing over more than a third of Liberia’s land to private logging, mining and agro-industrial enterprises.
The U.S. has increased its military presence in Africa under Obama, from leading the NATO bombing of Libya in 2011 to repeated Special Forces operations and missile strikes in Somalia. Among the imperialists’ concerns is the growing influence of China, Africa’s largest trading partner. As part of its trade for oil and mineral resources for its nationalized industries, China has built hospitals, schools and other infrastructure in many African countries. This contrasts sharply with the legacy left by the imperialist powers: extreme poverty, social backwardness, tribal and ethnic warfare.
The response of the West African governments to the outbreak of Ebola was denial, indifference and criminal cover-up of the magnitude of the disease. A Doctors Without Borders coordinator called the early response “purely improvisation.” He went on to say, “There is no one to take responsibility, absolutely no one, since the beginning of the crisis.” Guinean president Alpha Condé said while meeting World Health Organization officials in April, “For the moment the situation is well in hand, and we touch wood that there won’t be any new cases.” Many government officials in Liberia simply fled the country.
As the disease spread uncontrollably, governments brutally imposed the cordon sanitaire, a medieval practice used in the era of the Black Death in Europe. As in a recent three-day countrywide lockdown in Sierra Leone, throngs of hungry, terrified people facing military troops have been trapped in their squalor.
Meanwhile, local health workers on the front lines continue their selfless fight in a decrepit health care system, abandoned by their fearful families and shunned by their neighbors. Many agonize over having to turn away patients at the gates of treatment centers while bodies lie festering in the street. The New York Times (10 August) described the situation in Guinea’s capital, Conakry:
“The treatment room at Donka [hospital] was poorly lit and had no sink. There were few buckets of chlorine solution, and the staff found it impossible to clean their hands between patients.... Gloves, in short supply at the hospitals, were selling for 50 cents a pair on the open market, a huge sum for people who often live on less than a dollar a day. At homes where families cared for patients, even plastic buckets to hold water and bleach for washing hands and disinfecting linens were lacking.”
In a clinic in Dolo Town, east of Monrovia, by mid August only one box of gloves had been delivered since April. Located near the Firestone rubber plantation, the town has been on lockdown—an Ebola “jail,” in the words of Firestone workers who live there. At a government hospital in Sierra Leone, workers have gone on strike repeatedly to demand better working conditions, protective gear and pay, which many have not seen for weeks.
Mistrust and hatred of government officials are so high that many believe that Ebola is a conspiracy or simply deny that it exists. Panicked populations have blamed health workers for spreading the virus or accused them of harvesting organs. In mid September, an eight-person team attempting to educate villagers on prevention was killed by a mob in Guinea.
With the collapse of what health care systems existed, superstition fills the void. Believing that Ebola is an evil spell or the work of witchcraft, many people have sought out “traditional healers.” In Sierra Leone, one healer contracted Ebola from those seeking her help, and died. Those at the funeral washed her body by hand to prepare it for burial, a common ritual. They were then infected, leading to an explosive chain reaction of deaths, funerals and further infections.
Up to now, the pharmaceutical giants have done nothing to develop a vaccine for a disease that largely affects impoverished black Africans. But as Ebola threatens to spread beyond its African confines, pharmaceutical companies have dusted off plans for developing a vaccine, putting it on a fast track for commercialization. The most probable market would be the U.S. military, a huge consumer of vaccines.
The Ebola crisis is yet another marker of the criminality and irrationality of the capitalist order. The World Health Organization had its budget slashed following the global financial crisis, leading to the dissolving of its epidemic and pandemic response department and leaving only one technical expert on hemorrhagic diseases. At the same time, the U.S. ruling class pours billions into warding off the spectre of “bioterrorism.” As journalist Arthur Allen wrote in Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver (2008), “No price was too high to pay for anything that had the magic word ‘terrorism’ attached to it. Congress was willing to authorize $1.9 billion to build and maintain a stockpile of smallpox vaccine, and $1.4 billion to create and stockpile a new anthrax vaccine.”
The inhuman conditions that capitalism imposes on its semicolonial slaves pose in the starkest manner the need for socialist revolutions across the globe. There are crucial proletarian concentrations in Africa—from the powerful industrial workers in South Africa and Egypt to oil workers in Nigeria and dock and rail workers in Kenya—with the potential social power to lead all the miserably impoverished and oppressed in revolutionary struggle. Key to this perspective is the fight to sweep away capitalist rule in the imperialist heartlands, in which an exceptionally important role will be played by black workers in the U.S., descendants of African slaves.
As early as the mid 19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels recognized that the advent of modern science and industry created the potential to eliminate the hunger and deprivation that deform and stunt the lives of the world’s masses. But this cannot be achieved under a system of production for profit. Only through overturning the capitalist system and establishing a planned, collectivized economy on a world scale will the basis be laid for a qualitative expansion of scientific research and technological development to serve human needs, finally overcoming material scarcity.