Over the ages, a number of empires have exploited and looted the resource-rich lands of Africa. At its height, the Roman Empire stretched from Scotland in the northern hemisphere to the deserts of Africa in the south. The Romans stripped their North African territory of its trees, making it their breadbasket of grain production. Originating in central Africa, malaria was likely spread to the center of the Roman Empire on their cargo ships. Passengers on their boats could have carried malaria in their bloodstream before becoming symptomatic, and water barrels on board could have harbored mosquito larvae. In fact, the DNA work of Dr. Robert Sallares has proven that the most lethal form of malaria helped topple ancient Rome. Fast forwarding to today, the blow-back from industrial agriculture and transnational corporate land grabs in Africa has now reached the shores of the hegemonic American Empire in the form of a deadly tropical disease called Ebola.
The Roman Empire seized fertile African land by brute force, but in modern times capitalist industrial civilization takes over Third World countries with the stroke of a pen. Structural adjustment loans by such tools of western power as the IMF and World Bank are signed requiring privatization of the economy and government cuts in social spending. Vast tracks of forests are cleared for mining or monoculture crop production such as palm oil. Subsistence farmers are dispossessed of their ancestral lands and forced to migrate to cities in search of work. Deprived of adequate healthcare and the opportunity to earn a livable wage, these urban poor live in squalor and are driven to hunt in the surrounding forests for a cheap source of protein known as bushmeat. Fruit bats, a keystone environmental species, have been identified as an Ebola virus host that has spread the disease through bushmeat consumption, habitat destruction, and human encroachment. Thus the neoliberal agenda of ‘developed’ nations has acted to create the atmosphere from which this pandemic arose.
Due to the long history of exploitation by outside powers, native Africans are justifiably wary and prone to conspiracy theories involving intervention by Western institutions as well as their own governments which have been, to a great degree, corrupted by the resource curse. These unpleasant facts are, of course, never mentioned by the MSM because it might spark a flicker of moral compunction in the ‘developed’ world which has ended up with so much of Africa’s wealth in the form of rare earth minerals used inside electronic devices, gold and diamonds in jewelry, or petrol pumped into vehicles. The horrific realities behind conflict minerals are always kept out of sight and out of mind by the next consumer diversion.
The following video is a brilliant lecture by Rob Wallace, evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer, discussing the epidemiologic links between the current Ebola outbreak and the socioeconomic policies of capitalist industrial civilization.
“Pathogens routinely trace society’s inequalities and expropriations like water traces cracks in ice… Ebola represents such a case. The shifts in land use in the Guinean region where the new strain apparently emerged are connected to the kinds of neoliberal structural adjustments that, alongside divesting public health infrastructure, open domestic food production to global circuits of capital… [The corporate agribusiness land acquisitions in Africa] are markers of a complex policy-driven faith change in agroecology…that undergirds Ebola’s emergence here.” ~ Rob Wallace
In biology there is a phenomenon known as the Allee effect which occurs when a species declines to a critical population threshold, becoming too spread out over a large area to find a mate for reproduction and thereby making a crash to extinction all but inevitable. The Allee effect applies to infectious diseases as well, and if you can knock down an outbreak below an infection threshold through such methods as vaccinations or proper sanitation, then the outbreak can burn out on its own. However, as Rob Wallace wryly states, “…structural problems can render emergency responses null and void, no matter how much Bill Gates pays out.” In other words, we may have destroyed the ecosystem’s natural ability to keep such pathogens in check and from expanding out of control in the future:
“…commoditizing the forest and neoliberal dispossession may have lowered the region’s ecosystemic threshold to a point that no emergency intervention can drive the pathogen population low enough to burn out on its own. The pathogen will continue to circulate with the potential to explode. In short, neoliberalism’s shifts aren’t just a background upon which such emergencies take place. It is the emergency as much as the virus itself. And history has demonstrated this time and again. Faith changes and social organization, for better and for worse, change epidemiologies. Domesticated livestock served as sources for human diphtheria, influenza, measles, mumps, plague, pertussis, rotavirus, tuberculosis, sleeping sickness, etc. Ecological changes brought about upon landscapes by human intervention selected for spill-overs of cholera from algae, malaria from birds, and dengue fever and yellow fever from wild primates… We can pretend otherwise for Ebola, but in protecting the rationals for institutions and policies that likely brought about such outbreaks, if as byproducts of a greater economy alone, we will surely only compound the problem. If not by Ebola this year, then perhaps something else next.”
In addition to the ecosystemic impact of industrial agriculture and global circuits of capital, our highly mobile society and the consequent climate disruption from fossil-fueled globalization have worked to propel the spread of invasive species, diseases, and pathogens:
The following graph show the increase of invasive species since 1500 with an explosion in the last 100 years:
Overuse of antibiotics and lack of developing new antibiotics are also facilitating the mutation, spread, and rebirth of deadly pathogens across the globe. No new class of antibiotics has been discovered since the 1980’s.
Below is a chart showing the increase in bacterial resistance for selected pathogens. “For example, Staphylococcus aureus resistant to methicillin has increased almost 70% since about 1975.” The dawning of an antibiotic apocalypse is upon us:
A new tv special entitled The Trouble with Antibiotics aired this past week (h/t reader PBM):
“FRONTLINE investigates the widespread use of antibiotics in food animals and whether it is fueling the growing crisis of antibiotic resistance in people. Plus an exclusive interview with the family of a young man who died in a superbug outbreak that swept through a hospital at the National Institutes of Health.”
Amplifying what some call peak antibiotics is the fact that in our capitalist economy, the perverse incentive for monetary profit discourages pharmaceutical companies from developing new antibiotics; there is no market for curing… only prolonging:
…Ebola emerged 40 years ago, and, Dr. Chan said, there were no vaccines or other remedies because it has traditionally been confined to poor African countries. A profit-driven pharmaceutical industry had no incentive to make products for countries that could not pay, she said.
The risks of neglecting health care in developing countries are global, Dr. Chan said, adding that “when a deadly and dreaded virus hits the destitute and spirals out of control, the whole world is put at risk.”… – link
The budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has also stagnated, leaving Dr. Francis Collins, head of the NIH, to admit that an Ebola vaccine would likely have been found by now if not for budget cuts:
The fragmented and “crapified” nature of America’s for-profit healthcare system has also factored into the fumbled response to Ebola’s invasion into America, as Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism explained recently:
…the statistics say compared to other developed countries, US processes and outcomes are at best mediocre using the best of some admittedly flawed metrics (look here), yet our costs are much higher than those of comparable countries. Furthermore, on Health Care Renewal we have been connecting the dots among severe problems with cost, quality and access on one hand, and huge problems with concentration and abuse of power, enabled by leadership of health care organizations that is ill-informed, incompetent, unsympathetic or hostile to health care professionals’ values, self-interested, conflicted, dishonest, or even corrupt and governance that fails to foster transparency, accountability, ethics and honesty…
…The US health care system is now heavily commercialized. Health care corporations, including pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, are often lead by generic managers who subscribe to the business school dogma of the “shareholder value theory,” which seems to translate into putting short-term revenues ahead of all other goals. Thus they have been“financialized.” At least in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector, such financialization appears to now be global…
…from 1983 to 2000, the number of managers working in the US health care system grew 726%, while the number of physicians grew 39%, so the manager/physician ratio went from roughly one to six to one to one (see 2005 post here). As we noted here, the growth continued, so there are now 10 managers for every US physician…
International institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have also been “crapified’ under neoliberal ideology:
There is little wonder why the Ebola outbreak caught the WHO so flat footed as they spent months making mealy mouthed statements but never coordinating an effective response. The Gates foundation is the WHO boss, not governments, and if they weren’t demanding action, then the desperate people affected by Ebola weren’t going to get any…
…The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged an additional $50 million to fight the current Ebola epidemic but that too is problematic, as Director General Chan describes. “When there’s an event, we have money. Then after that, the money stops coming in, then all the staff you recruited to do the response, you have to terminate their contracts.” The WHO should not be lurching from crisis to crisis, SARS, MERS, or H1N1 influenza based on the whims of philanthropy. The principles of public health should be carried out by knowledgeable medical professionals who are not dependent upon rich people for their jobs.
The Gates are not alone in using their deep pockets to confound what should be publicly held responsibilities. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that he was contributing $25 million to fight Ebola. His donation will go to the Centers for Disease Control Foundation. Most Americans are probably unaware that such a foundation even exists. Yet there it is, run by a mostly corporate board which will inevitably interfere with the public good…
Essentially, both ISIS and the Ebola pandemic are crises of the corporate state’s own making. Vast sums of money have flowed into America’s war machine to fight the terrorist threat of ISIS, yet the specter of a global pandemic has elicited a much more belated and tepid reaction from the leaders of our brave new privatized and financialized system of government. As with climate change, it has become clear once again that the health of the world and its people cannot be trusted with these adherents of neoliberal capitalism, and as I stated in a previous blog post, the conspiracy is systemic and legalized. The virus of capitalist industrial civilization appears to be on an unstoppable trajectory of burning itself out within our children’s lifetime.
“It was a nice run for the biosphere, but it finally came down with a lethal disease, homeostasis lost, the pyramid of life reduced to the pancake of life.” ~ James