In the 14th century, the Black Death claimed the lives of an estimated 200 million people. Major cities like Florence, Paris, and London experienced the death of 50% of the population. At its peak, the Black Death reduced Europe’s population by one-third. This was one of the most deadly pandemics in history and it left a permanent mark on history. Some even argue that the wake of destruction the plague left behind provided the basis for the Reformation and the early development of capitalism. With the immense technology we have, surely an outbreak of this scale couldn’t take place today. Or could it?
The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa—affecting Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia—is the worst yet seen. At the time of writing it has claimed the lives of 1,427 people with more than a thousand others infected. Ebola has understandably alarmed people the world over to the dangers of such a disease.
The World Health Organization has designated this outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, a legal designation that has only been used twice before. Once for the 2009 Swine Flu Pandemic, which killed 284,500 people, and for the current resurgence of polio, a disease that had been largely eliminated in most countries due to simple and inexpensive vaccinations.
Ebola, first detected in 1976, kills 50–90% of those infected. It is spread through the bodily fluids of animals and humans. It is thought to be carried by fruit bats without their being affected by the virus. The handling and consumption of bushmeat (meat from wild animals, including fruit bats) is likely the most common transmission from animals to humans.
Compared to many other viruses (like the flu or common cold), Ebola doesn’t transmit very easily. It requires contact with secretions of the infected and is not known to be an airborne disease. In addition, the quick onset of symptoms makes it relatively easy to identify those who are infected, thus helping to prevent further transmission. And as it is so deadly, it often has trouble finding another suitable victim before it kills its present host.
The spread of Ebola is exacerbated by the reuse of syringes in hospitals, insufficient protective clothing at treatment facilities, and lack of necessary precautions during the burial of those killed by the disease. This makes Ebola yet another in a long list of diseases whose spread, in theory, could be prevented using something as simple as a pamphlet and basic medical supplies.
The problem is that the literacy rates for Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea are 43.3%, 42.9%, and 25.3% respectively (UNICEF). These three countries are among the poorest in the world. Centuries of colonial rule and imperialism have left them as little more than depositories of iron, rubber, diamonds, and other natural resources for the major capitalist powers worldwide.
More than a decade of instability and civil war has further deteriorated the infrastructure necessary to prevent the spread of disease. The operations director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Brice de la Vigne, noted that due to the lack of infrastructure “it’s the worst place in the world to have these epidemics.” With civil war raging in many countries throughout the globe as a result of the impasse of the capitalist system, there are bound to be many more “worst places” for epidemics to gain a foothold.
In the context of the biggest crisis in the history of capitalism, and the accompanying cuts and austerity, we are faced with the perspective of deteriorating health care, infrastructure, and everything else that comes with it. No country is immune to the crisis. Take Greece, for example.
Before the 2008 crisis, the Greek health care system was on par with the rest of Europe. However, due to cuts in funding, many hospitals now face shortages of basic supplies such as syringes, including syringes distributed to drug addicts to prevent them from sharing or reusing needles. Cuts in infectious disease prevention programs have left their mark as well: malaria has appeared in the country for the first time in over 40 years. A decrease in access to health care, understaffing, and long waits for even simple checkups and vaccinations has led to the fear of a resurgence of many other easily preventable and curable diseases. What would happen if Ebola were to gain a foothold in Greece?
Considering the threat that Ebola poses, what has the response of the so-called “international community” been so far? “The response . . . is almost zero,” said MSF’s Brice de la Vigne. He added that “The solution is not that complicated but we need to have political will to do so. Time is running against us. But you need very senior people with high profiles, the kind of people who can coordinate a response to a million people affected by an earthquake.” Unfortunately, the solution is a bit more complicated so long as the capitalist system remains.
Karl Marx explained that it is the division of the world into nation-states and the private ownership of the means of production that hamper the further development of society. But perhaps he never foresaw that infectious disease could highlight so clearly the limits of the capitalist system and the dangers it poses to the future of humanity.
The US ranks 11th in quality of healthcare among OECD nations. The US also ranks 11th in those infected with the plague! Even in the richest country on Earth the threat of infectious disease is present. These diseases and “superbugs”—bacteria that have developed a resistance to standard antibiotics—will likely only continue to appear in headlines for years to come as the capitalist system continues its decline.
While we will always live alongside infectious and potentially deadly diseases, we have the technological potential to contain, prevent, and cure future outbreaks. But for this to happen we must take public control of this technology and the means of production and gear them towards providing every man, woman, and child with the highest-quality education, housing, and health care so that we can ensure humanity is in a position to stop dangerous outbreaks dead in their tracks.