Their ideas spread like a virus, among the poor and war-ravaged. Their simplistic fundamentalist message infects the vulnerable and turns them into a host body. When thousands are thus transformed, they begin to take over a whole country, overwhelming the state apparatus. They have no respect for borders, spreading in all directions …
So the war party is saying of the Islamic State/IS/ISIS/ISIL, the ruthless insurgent group, who have established a quasi-state across areas of Iraq and Syria. In his speech today, United States President Barack Obama warned Americans that the group could attack the US — despite, well, any evidence of that:
“If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region — including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.”
The group has 10,000-15,000 members, no aircraft and lives off captured weapons. Were it to present a real threat to larger entities, it could and would be bombed into the earth (taking many others with it).
Yet the virus metaphor is compelling, giving IS fighters a supernatural aura, and predisposing the idea that some sort of international response is called for. Successful rhetoric — so successful that the metaphorical virus of IS has crowded out the spread of an actual virus — Ebola.
The brutal and overwhelmingly fatal disease is slowly but surely busting out of any containment zone in West Africa, and health authorities are being overwhelmed. There have now been close to 5000 cases in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, with 2300 deaths — and another 2000 of the remainder expected to die. Half of those 5000 cases have occurred in the past three weeks.
The World Health Organization estimates that those cases will expand exponentially over the next few weeks, with the Liberian Health Minister saying that the stability of the country is threatened by the overload. Patients have been turned away from local clinics for some time now; recently, they are being turned away from Medecins Sans Frontieres clinics, which are swamped.
Compared to the rapid response and obsessive focus on IS, global response to the Ebola crisis has been patchy and piecemeal. The WHO estimates that 1000 more hospital beds and matching equipment are needed immediately — so far, the United States has offered 25, and the United Kingdom, 62. More than 60 doctors and nurses have now died from the disease, in countries with minuscule numbers of medical personnel.
“In our imagination we can’t get Ebola because it’s an African disease … We would not have let a whole white community or region die of AIDS the same way we allowed Africa to do.”
The degree to which Africa has been left to die of easily preventable diseases is shocking in itself, but the indolent indifference that has been displayed as the disease began to rage is something else to behold. This is indifference that is directly contrary to global self-interest — letting a highly infectious disease run riot in a world of cheap flights and global migrations. How can we fail to act?
Part of the answer is that vital strategic interests are at play in northern Iraq and Syria, and if they weren’t, the “genocide” of the Yazidis would suffer the same news fate as the thousands of kidnapping and murder victims of Boko Haram in Africa. But it is also the case that there is no real framework to ensure global health, or to treat a disease that has a global reach as a global problem.
This is the paradox of statehood — whatever guarantees of independence it may give, it can also act in reverse, sequestering people in a zone that lacks the resources to deal with their plight. Part of the rapid response to IS was due to the fact that it threatened the state system of the region it had arisen in, rather than merely threatening the people within it.
With Ebola rampant, the states that host it become plague houses — the population within can be sealed off, denied the chance to get out, and left to die. We did it with the African AIDS epidemic, all the way offering silent thanks that the transmission of HIV/AIDS was relatively difficult. Now we have the disease we feared — the stuff of Hollywood disaster movies, complete with exponential spread and everything — and we simply assess it through the existing system.
If, by chance, Liberia were an American state (the country was founded as a colony and then an independent republic by the United States before the civil war), we would of course see an entirely different response — adequate healthcare (by US standards) and guards at the border stopping anyone from getting into the place. Will the arrival of a possible Ebola case at the Gold Coast — though it is most likely something else — focus Australian attention on the real viruses, rather than media ones?
Possibly, especially if the victim is a white Australian.
Part of the near-genocidal negligence with which we have treated disease in Africa traces back to a lingering, unconscious racialism within the culture — the idea of races as separate species continues to operate, especially towards Africans, at some level. So in our imagination we can’t get Ebola because it’s an African disease — we simply watched the horror show of its spread and effects as one of the continuing extravaganzas of the “dark continent”. We would not have let a whole white community or region die of AIDS the same way we allowed Africa to do (though as the 1980s showed, that courtesy did not extend to groups within white communities).
We’ve heard a lot about “global leadership” in the past few weeks — a phrase which now means the ability to nod furiously and get out of a plane without falling down the stairs. We could do with some real leadership now — for someone to point out that the Ebola outbreak is a global problem for humanity, as is global health more generally. It’s a shame that Africans have to projectile vomit lethal blood in order to get what they need.
On the anniversary of a stunningly successful act of terrorist spectacle, which drew the West into a decade of wasted killing, blood and treasure — and helped bring the “virus” of IS into being — it might be hoped that we can disentangle ourselves from our own propaganda long enough to focus on genuine threats to others, and to ourselves.