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Ebola, Complacency and Crisis

Congo Guinea Ebola   AGUI101Health emergency in West Africa? Who cares. Until the last month or so, that pretty much summed up the attitude in Western newsrooms and policy-making circles. After all, when is there not some kind of health crisis blighting the people of Sub-Saharan, central and southern Africa? HIV/AIDS is an ugly shadow cast over the fate of entire nations. According to the UN 1-in-20 live with the disease, with over 15% of 15-49 year olds infected in some countries. As awful a social disaster and human tragedy this is, it pales next to Malaria where, despite falling infection rates, it kills a child every minute. Meanwhile, diarrhoel infections carry off approximately 1.5m African kids every year. So yeah, there’s been outbreaks and rumours of outbreaks before but as long as it never threatened our green and pleasant, few but concerned journalists and far-sighted public health experts were banging the Ebola drum.

There’s politics too. Successive governments make big deals about protecting the overseas aid budget. While Dave’s parading of development cash smacks more of “not all Western governments!” posturing, there is precious little the department has done to challenge lazy journalism and the festering little Englandism it stokes. This is a politics that says Britain has no place helping the poor in developing nations when states there are building infrastructure and investing in future proof industry. This silence has helped engender an utterly toxic politics around aid questions paralleling home grown scrounger discourse. In the early stages of the Ebola outbreak, intervening decisively across Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea required the kind of mobilisation we’re only now seeing. The difference then, of course, that a great deal of political capital would have been staked without an obviously tangible outcome. No one is thanked for curbing a small-scale outbreak, especially where African lives are concerned.

And now, it’s almost too late. The experts say our posse of barely-functioning states, Western military and medical personnel, and transnational NGOs have 60 days to get the outbreak under control before the contagion runs amok. With many blighted communities going “off-grid” and refusing to cooperate with what limited authority there is, and the drip, drip of infections outwith the region – including a likely Ebola death in Macedonia – it all smacks of the TL,TL syndrome (too little, too late). Given the scale of the disaster unfolding and the historical debts France, Britain and the US owe Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia respectively, more resource and more volunteers should be poured into the region.

Meanwhile at home, there is very little governments can actually do to face down Ebola. The much-vaunted screening splashed across the evening’s bulletins are more about reassurance than public health. Remember, the disease takes 21 days to incubate before entering its most infectious – and lethal – phase. There’s no breathalyser, no tricorder, no bloody speak-your-tropical-disease machines. It’s just going to be an infrared scanner and medics with multiple choice questions. As the government flag up these “robust” protective measures, it’s also emphasising how “well-equipped” Britain is to deal with Ebola infections. We have the procedures, the beds, the infrastructure and the expertise to deal. If it turns up on these shores? Nay problem. We are not Liberia.

All that might be true. If the government says it, of course it is. But beware unintended consequences. Sensibly we are being warned to seek medical advice/attention as soon as we present symptoms. Unfortunately, initial symptoms are fever, headaches, joint and muscle pain, and a sore throat. Last week I had the dubious pleasure of contracting freshers’ flu. Guess what symptoms I was exhibiting? It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a few more confirmed Ebola cases in the UK could spark a stampede at walk-in centres, doctors’ surgeries, A&Es of people suffering nothing other than the seasonal sniffles and shakes. Better-to-be-safe-than-sorry could touch off an almighty winter beds crisis, complicated by a decreased lack of capacity to catch Ebola sufferers. What a shambles.

And there we have it. Western complacency and the toxic politics of overseas aids has, in Britain’s case, raises the possibility of an entirely avoidable health care meltdown. It’s the kind of situation the word ‘omnishambles’ was invented for, but one in which misery will be reaped. Not laughs.

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