Humanitarian aid and medical supplies are encouraged; increased positioning of AFRICOM on the continent is not.
With the tragic spread of Ebola in several West African countries – among them Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone – U.S. President Barack Obama has sent the United States military to the region to help combat the crisis, though some are quite skeptical of whether sending armed combatants into places stricken with extreme poverty and disease is really the most clever of ideas. The recent outbreak of Ebola has killed some 2,811 people so far. In all there’s been an estimated 5,864 who’ve been infected with about a 42% chance of survival. The fact that AFRICOM is part of this mission is more than enough reason to question the American agenda here. Political commentator Glen Ford wrote previously, “AFRICOM and U.S. policy are the disasters afflicting the continent; they are part of the disease, not the cure.”
Both Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and the World Health Organization have said are in desperate need of additional aid and medical supplies and would welcome assistance the U.S. could give, but they’ve specifically stated they are not in need of armed security forces. In fact they have firmly cautioned against it. As reported by Al Jazeera:
MSF, whose health care workers have fought on the front lines against Ebola, welcomed the promise of supplies and equipment from the U.S. military, but sounded a note of caution in a statement issued on Monday.
“MSF welcomes President Obama’s commitment to deploy medical assets to help establish isolation units in the Ebola-affected region, and reiterates the need for this support to be of medical nature only,” the statement read.
“Aid workers do not need additional security support in the affected region,” it added.
WHO also said it does not believe the U.S. military needs to act as a security force, and it does not recommend that it do so.
Meredith Stakem, West Africa aid coordinator for nonprofit organization Catholic Relief Services (CRS), echoed MSF’s view.
Speaking from Dakar, Senegal — the latest country to see a case of the virus — Stakem said that the unprecedented scale of the latest Ebola outbreak requires major supply and logistical services, but that security for doctors wasn’t necessary. She said the mere presence of men with weapons could undermine the entire mission.
“What we don’t want to see is the U.S. military going in with guns and enforcing quarantines. It will prevent their ability to do anything else,” Stakem said, adding that U.S. forces should respect the sovereignty and cultures of the local governments in delivering aid.
Unfortunately President Obama seems to be ignoring the advice of health care workers on the ground. And while it would be wonderful to assume this is being done out of the goodness of his own heart, there are also legitimate reasons for skepticism over whether the motives for sending in AFRICOM are entirely humanitarian in nature. In the words of one senior administration official, the President views the outbreak “as a national security priority.” When asked in an interview what the motivations for American intervention to help prevent the spread of Ebola was specifically, according to the Washington Post, the President rather bluntly explained that he’s worried about it potentially “becoming a serious danger to the United States.”
Kim Dionne, a professor of government at Smith College who focuses on Africa… said it is sad that it has come to the point where the main reason for providing humanitarian aid is the perception of a threat to the U.S.
“I want people to do more about Ebola, and it’s something that can and should be contained, but I’m troubled that it has to be done through the military,” she said.
Indeed, it is rather disheartening to hear the President of the United States describe the Ebola outbreak in terms which invoke the so-called “War on Terror”. Once again, one has to wonder if the international response would’ve been altogether different had the virus first emerged in say Europe or North America. The President of the UK Faculty of Public Health, Dr. John Ashton, certainly believes so. Writing in the UK paper The Independent in early August, Ashton opined,
…it seems that the involvement of powerless minority groups has contributed to a tardiness of response and a failure to mobilise an adequately resourced international medical response. In the case of AIDS, it took years for proper research funding to be put in place and it was only when so-called “innocent” groups were involved (women and children, haemophiliac patients and straight men) that the media, the politicians and the scientific community and funding bodies took notice.
The international community has to be shamed into real commitment to the millennium goals for international development if the root causes of diseases like Ebola are to be addressed. And yes, as with the cholera in British cities in the 1840’s, the fact that the privileged were not exempt from being infected meant that enlightened self interest concentrated minds… We must respond to this emergency as if it was in Kensington, Chelsea, and Westminster. And we must “get real” over economic development.
Dr. Ashton didn’t leave the pharmaceutical companies completely off the hook either, noting that their interest in making huge profits often eclipses the priority of saving peoples’ lives.
We must also tackle the scandal of the unwillingness of the pharmaceutical industry to invest in research to produce treatments and vaccines, something they refuse to do because the numbers involved are, in their terms, so small and don’t justify the investment. This is the moral bankruptcy of capitalism acting in the absence of an ethical and social framework.
The ethics concerns of the pharmaceutical industry are certainly open to question, particularly after three Westerners who contracted the disease were given doses of an experimental serum called ZMapp, produced by Mapp Biopharmaceuticals, despite the CDC having been told there were “no more doses available”. The effectiveness of the serum is unknown at this time. Interestingly, the Western media usually present any African fear of foreign medical facilities that may arise as being completely unfounded and based on superstition. But people in Africa have not forgotten the not-so distant past of European colonialism and even genocide. An article by Baffour Ankomah in the Zimbabwe Times called “What Do The Americans Know About Ebola Outbreak?” brings an African perspective to the fore that is often missing in the mainstream press.