As the official West African death toll from the worst Ebola outbreak in recorded history nears 5,000, global concerns about the infectious disease continue to mount. Analysts and medical providers, from Liberia to the United States, say that in order to address the crisis, the international community must tackle the real culprit: western-driven economic policies defunding public health systems around the world, particularly in the countries hit hardest by the outbreak.
“The neoliberal economic model assassinated public infrastructure,” said Emira Woods, a Liberia native and social impact director at ThoughtWorks, a technology firm committed to social and economic justice, in an interview with Common Dreams. “A crisis of the proportion we’ve seen since the beginning of the Ebola catastrophe shows this model has failed.”
Gutting of West African Public Health Systems
Since the 1980s, western financial institutions have given loans to third world governments on the condition those states impose austere domestic reforms and roll back public services. This approach is encapsulated in the 1981 World Bank report Accelerated Development in Sub-Saharan Africa, which presses for “structural adjustments,” including rapid privatization, shrinking of public services and subsidies, and a shift towards export dependency as a solution to “slow economic growth.”
“In West Africa, the resulting neoliberal economic policies sought to promote growth and prosperity through structural adjustment programs (SAPs) that generally involved contraction of government services, renewed export orientation on crops or goods deemed to have a comparative advantage, privatization of parastatal organizations, removal or reduction of many subsidies and tariffs, and currency devaluations,” explain Macalester College Professor William Moseley and colleagues in a paper for the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
“What you had was a shift of public expenditures from health care, school, and essential services to a model of economic development driven by the World bank and International Monetary Fund, which said that public service provision was not passage to development, and services should be privatized,” said Woods. “There was this notion that poor people can pay, and services are better provided by the private sector.”
While years of war played a role in weakening public systems, it is the “war against people, driven by international financial institutions” that is largely responsible for decimating the public health care system, eroding wages and conditions for health care workers, and fueling the crisis sweeping West Africa today, says Woods. “Over the past six months to a year there have been rolling health care worker strikes in country after country—Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Liberia,” said Woods. “Nurses and doctors are risking and losing their lives but don’t have protective gear needed to serve patients and save their own lives. They are on the front lines and have not had their voices heard.”