Ebola Epidemic: Indictment of Capitalism-Imperialism
Reflection for Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace
By Bonnie Ellen Blustein, Ph.D., November 8, 2014
Most of you probably don’t know that before I was a math teacher, I was a historian of medicine. In recent months, this has gotten to seem more relevant.
My advisor, Charles Rosenberg, was a pioneer in the social history of medicine. His first book, The Cholera Years, used the epidemics of 1832, 1849, and 1866 as a lens through which to view changes in American society in the mid-nineteenth-century.
It is, of course, the terrible Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia that has called this to mind.
Now, as then, a pathogen has become a mass killer because of the pre-existing conditions of poverty, malnutrition, urban overcrowding, and lack of sanitation. In the 19th century US, these were manifestations of a rapidly industrializing capitalist society. In west Africa today, we can trace these conditions to what has been called the “European underdevelopment of Africa,” which we might more bluntly term imperialism.
Then, as now, the frightening manifestations of a killer disease were fodder for racist hysteria: then against free Black people and Irish Catholic immigrants especially, now against Africans: a child excluded from a Connecticut school after a visit to Nigeria; West Africans stigmatized on Staten Island in New York; students from Cameroon facing hostility here in LA.
The victims were, and are, blamed: for their culture, for their customs, for their justifiable distrust of authorities. And in the dictatorship of the rich that constitutes the capitalist political system, epidemics become occasions to strengthen institutions of social control.
The 1866 cholera epidemic prompted the creation of increasingly authoritarian boards of public health. Today, the US government sends to west Africa, not medical personnel but 3000 troops – many with only four hours of Ebola training.
Can we excuse the skeptics who wonder whether the main intention might be to bolster the growing US AFRICOM military command? Or to counter the growing role of Chinese companies in the oil and gas fields of the Gulf of Guinea, once the province of U.S. companies like ExxonMobil, Hess, Marathon, and Noble Energy?
Mid-19th century medicine lacked even a well-supported germ theory of disease, let alone knowledge of the cholera bacillus. The health establishment today cannot claim such ignorance, yet the west African masses have not benefitted from nearly 40 years’ experience and research.
There was no money to be made from a vaccine to protect impoverished west Africans, so no vaccine is available.
Imperialist powers sucked cheap labor and valuable resources out of the continent, disdaining to cut into their profits even to establish hospitals and clinics. The palliative care that has saved the lives of nearly all Ebola victims treated in the US and Europe is simply not available where it’s most needed.
Rosenberg noted that to some, “cholera seemed an unmistakable indictment of the society which allowed it to exist.”
“Yet still will wealth presumptuous cry,” began an 1832 poem,
“What though the hand of death be thus outstretched
It will not reach the lordly and the high
But only strike the lowly and the wretched…
O thou reforming cholera! Thour’t sent
Not as a scourge alone, but as a teacher…”
We can say the same thing about Ebola today. This deadly epidemic is exposing the bankruptcy, moral and otherwise, of capitalist health care and the capitalist world system.
Add this to potentially catastrophic global warming, to increasing economic inequality, to rising racism and xenophobia from Europe to the Indian subcontinent to the wave of police killings in the US, and to sharpening inter-imperialist conflict that can only lead in the end to world war.
Can the need be clearer, the urgency stronger, or the opportunity greater?
We must find and build on our prophetic roots. We must find and use our prophetic voices. We must imagine a radical alternative to capitalism, imagine and mobilize for and build a world unfettered by banks or borders, profits or prejudice, markets or money. Can we begin to imagine, for example, a health care system that is not “single payer” but “no payer”?
In my experience, many are ready to seek such an alternative. Distrust of authorities is rampant but scarcely new. Another 1832 poem, published in a working-class paper, began:
“The nest of college-birds are three
Law, Physic, and Divinity
And while these three remain combined
They keep the world oppressed and blind.
On Lab’rers money lawyers feast
Also the Doctor and the Priest.”
By 1866, Rosenberg wrote, “With each assertion of their own position, prosperous Americans became increasingly uneasy… Here, it would seem, were conditions that might nurture class warfare, even revolution.”
Nearly 150 years later, such fears — expressed, for example, in a recent Foreign Affairs article on “populism”—are more justified than ever.
The siren song of reform is losing its charm. I will probably step on some toes here, but from Obama here in the US, to the ANC in South Africa, and even the FMLN in El Salvador, the promise of a more humane, less racist, less exploitative form of capitalism is exposing itself as a cruel lie.
I do not believe for a minute that ICUJP has ever been the kind of organization that can mobilize the masses to struggle for the world we need and want. We have always been suspended between prophesy and pragmatism and – like many groups with transformative aspirations – between revolutionary vision and reformist demands.
We have accomplished much in thirteen years, perhaps more than we realized when we rallied with Diane Watson at FAME in October 2001 against the air war on Afghanistan… when we stood in front of the Islamic Center on a misty morning, in solidarity against bomb threats…. or outside the Federal Building, offering assistance to Muslim men being summoned for “special registration” or on Terminal Island, where a Muslim friend was being detained... when we protested “Zero Dark Thirty” and brought anti-torture programs into our places of worship. The interfaith landscape of Los Angeles and beyond has been transformed, in no small measure by our work. We ourselves have been transformed.
We can do more. We can enrich that prophetic vision by digging deep into the core values of our faith traditions. We can bring it into the social justice work of our faith institutions.
Let us then draw inspiration from the brave women and men who are defying Ebola and imperialism, working despite all odds to save their brothers and sisters when they can, and to maintain their collective commitment to caring for each other always. Let us, then, humbly join in the revolutionary process of envisioning and building a world transformed.