USAID workers in Monrovia, Liberia.
USAID workers in Monrovia, Liberia.

By Harry C. Blaney III

“As I’ve said from the start of this outbreak, I consider this a top national security priority.  This is not just a matter of charity — although obviously the humanitarian toll in countries that are affected in West Africa is extraordinarily significant.  This is an issue about our safety.  It is also an issue with respect to the political stability and the economic stability in this region.
And so it is very important for us to make sure that we are treating this the same way that we would treat any other significant national security threat.  And that’s why we’ve got an all-hands-on-deck approach — from DOD to public health to our development assistance, our science teams — everybody is putting in time and effort to make sure that we are addressing this as aggressively as possible.” – President Obama after meeting with several senior officials and staff on the U.S. Ebola response

On Friday the White House had a high level briefing for the media on the question of the danger of the spread of the Ebola virus. One of the briefing’s takeaways was that Ebola is indeed a national security risk for the United States.  Present at the meeting was the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Commander of AFRICOM.  Another message was that with the advanced medical and scientific infrastructure we have in America it is highly unlikely that it would be a major risk for Americans and could and would be contained even as the first American based case occurred in the Washington DC area and several other new cases are under observation and treatment. 

But the reality is that Ebola and other dangerous and spreading diseases are indeed a national security threat, not for America, but globally and especially in the developing world where already such diseases are endemic and kill millions each year. Many more than all the acts of terrorism around the world combined. 

The basic problem and the reason why it is likely to over time become even more dangerous for all regions of the world is that the spread of these diseases are related to the rapid and growing mobility of populations. This is evident with the increased use of air travel, ships, and very often, frankly, the movement of people across borders that are not fully secure. Mobility is on the rise. This world is just too highly interconnected.

But another basic reason is climate change, which makes it possible for certain “bugs” and insects that are the transmission of disease to survive in climates that earlier would have killed them. But the largest reason why Ebola and other diseases are dangerous to all nations is that in many places in the world there is no capability of identifying fast outbreaks, detecting the causes, or the provision of modern and effective medical care. At the community level there do not exist the necessary basic health care services that can respond quickly, especially in remote areas or underserved regions. This means diseases spread before they are detected and contained. 

Underlying these dangerous conditions for all of us is the fundamental fact of the existing and, in some areas, growing, mass poverty and corrupt and indifferent governments. The increased inequality in many countries and marginalization of disempowered groups leads to providing disproportionate medical services for the favored rich, little for the middle class, and about nothing for the vast majority in poverty. 

Already we have in Africa riots and cruel acts out of blind fear and ignorance by those exposed to Ebola, even directed at health workers, which shows a basic lack of knowledge of how a disease spreads and how severe an outbreak can be. Yet these feelings come from an already deep sense of how government and elites in their society see them as expendable.

In response to the Ebola crisis President Obama has ordered US civilian medical and military assets to West Africa to contain and deal with the Ebola outbreak. It is equally important that other advanced nations, especially Europe, act to deploy urgently their medical assets to the region. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has set up medical facilities to test quickly for Ebola. USG and NGO groups are sending experts and medical staff to help local governments and hospitals. As in war, people are going into harm’s way to help contain this dangerous disease. The CDC is moving as fast as it can to develop an effective vaccine to prevent the disease. 

In the long run what is truly necessary is putting in place in areas of Africa a modern, efficient, and caring medical infrastructure. This could be done at a fraction of the cost of our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and save even more lives. There are many aspects of “humanitarian intervention” that do include saving people from mass beheadings, but they must include putting in place better basic health facilities and providing training and education to those in the health and medical communities in countries that are at risk.

Giving people hope that their lives can be improved and that their government and the world cares about them is not only one way to provide health “security” but also helps prevent the growth of terrorism, despair, anger, and conflict.  It is a win-win and America and our allies have the capability to do what is needed. The question is whether those governments have the political will to do so over the long term rather than just a “surge” type intervention and then disappear. That question has yet to find an answer. 

The issue is whether the United States and the wealthy nations of Europe and Asia can, with the relevant international organizations, muster the unity, the will, and the necessary urgent resources that they have at this moment in time to fully and on a long-term basis address the inadequacies of our global health system. Can we fight a war against a terrorist group that is killing tens of thousands of innocent people and at the same time address deadly diseases like Ebola and other related health risks that are now taking the lives of perhaps tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of poor people to date?

Experts are saying we can contain this virus, with sufficient effort, but that is not enough. What is needed structurally is a major effort to create in these nations basic health systems that can respond to major health risks and do so over the long-run. That will require resources that so far have been lacking. But like the cannery in the coal mine, Ebola is but a major warning of the dangers of indifference to a common threat which knows no boundaries. These diseases are as dangerous to us in the United States, Europe, and Asia as are any acts of possible terrorism, yet we are giving this problem only a small fraction of resources (and attention) that we are giving to our ongoing counter-terrorist operations.

One of the problems is that American politics have become so dominated by the forces of selfishness and greed enforced by corrosive right wing politics along with the forces of indifferent isolationists. Not least has been the unwillingness to raise the necessary taxes to either address our poverty at home and the even worse poverty, health challenges, and security dangers abroad. 

We welcome your comments!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s