Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Famine, Plague, and Colonialism: Thoughts on Ebola

There is a saying in Ireland -- "God put the blight on the potatoes.  The British put the famine on the Irish."

In other words, while the blight that hit Irish potatoes in the nineteenth century was, in a sense, a disease of natural origin, the mass starvation that ensued was the result of the Irish people, under a centuries long military occupation, being forced to grow a single crop on badly depleted soils.  A people given control over their own lives and the way they lived on the land their ancestors had inhabited for millennia would never have created such a vulnerable food system and economic system.

In the same way, we can say that while the Ebola virus is a product of evolution, the Ebola epidemic is the product of centuries of European in West Africa, wars fought with weapons made by those same colonizers, and a global capitalist system that has consistently looted the global south for the benefit of the ruling classes of North America and Europe (and, more recently, and to a lesser extent, Japan and China.)

Western journalists, speaking about the spread of Ebola in countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia have tended to pin the disease's rapid spread on burial customs that involve touching the dead.   While it is true that contact with the dead can result in the transfer of bodily fluids that spread the disease, focusing on burial customs pins the blame on the people impacted by the disease while ignoring the larger forces at play that created the conditions for it to become an epidemic.  These conditions include:

  • The collapse of the agricultural sector throughout the global south together with civil wars pushing more and more people into crowded urban areas where disease can spread quickly.
  • The lack of clean drinking water and adequate sanitation.
  • The overwhelm of underfunded public health systems already strained by dealing with diseases like malaria
  • Malnutrition making people more vulnerable to infections disease
and these factors all have their roots in the current and historical economic and military policies of colonial and neo-colonial powers.

As Allyson Pollock, Professor of Public Health at Queen Mary University in London, says:

[Liberia and Sierra Leone] had a total erosion and collapse of their public health care systems and this is the tragedy.  So the population has very, very few doctors and nurses.  They simply cannot cope and of course the public facilities that are there are overcrowded, they are in terrible conditions and they are completely and utterly understaffed.  So this problem of an epidemic was going to hit them, it could have been Ebola, it could be something else – it could be cholera or whatever. This was actually going to come home to hit these countries very hard indeed.  This was entirely predictable and it’s been predictable for more than 20 years and it is what the public health lobby and the public advocates have been talking about.  The solution to these epidemics is not the magic bullets of vaccines and it is not sending in the troops.  It’s structural, it’s social, it’s economic, it’s environmental and it is putting in all the public health measures.

There is not much we can do as herbalists to heal those now infected with Ebola.  Even if we had the perfect protocol for treating the disease, getting the relevant herbs to people and finding a safe way to administer them would be next to impossible.   But as people living in nations that continue to benefit from colonialism, we can address the roots of the epidemic by addressing the destruction wrought by global capitalism.

As I often tell my students, the prescription for almost every health care crisis we face is the dismantling of systems of oppression.   Everything else is harm reduction -- necessary and right and good but not a cure.


julia.angelina said...

I've been combing through your blog and really like what you have to say. This is no exception, I read the Ebola situation similarly, and I especially appreciated the potato famine lead in.

Gossamer Jedi said...

Thank you for this much needed commentary.

Anonymous said...

What do we do to dismantle the systems of oppression?