Ted Rall: Ebola Capitalism and the New Greed

Is short-term greed spreading Ebola? Our Ted Rall says yes. Here’s how.

aNewDomain commentary — Is short-term greed responsible for the continuing spread of Ebola. Our Ted Rall says yes. Here’s why.

Capitalism, we are repeatedly told, is a highly efficient system that relies on the fundamental free-market principle that if there is a need, someone will step up to meet it. Every now and then, however, something happens that belies capitalism’s supposed efficiency – and makes you question the whole shebang.

This week it’s Ebola.

As Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization pointed out October 13th, Ebola is a 40-year-old disease. The reason pharmaceutical companies have failed to find a cure, she said, is simple: under the current economic system, in which healthcare is a privilege not a right, they have no motivation to try.

“Ebola emerged nearly 40 years ago,” Chan said. “Why are clinicians still empty-handed, with no vaccine or cure? Because Ebola has been, historically, geographically confined to poor African nations. The research and development incentive is virtually nonexistent. A profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay.”

The need is real. The demand is massive. But the marketplace doesn’t exist to fulfill needs — it’s there to fill corporate coffers.

From an ethical standpoint, nothing could be more appalling. More than 5,000 people have already died. According to CDC computer models, as many as 1.4 million people may become infected by the deadly disease by late January. The fatality rate ranges between 25 percent and 90 percent. As Dr. Chan notes, hundreds of thousands of people are condemned to death merely because they have black skin and no stock portfolios.

Even if your heart is as hard as stone and you don’t care about racism, you have to take pause at the danger of the disease – one that might have been prevented had the pharmaceutical companies invested in research – spreading to other countries, as well as devastating geopolitical consequences.

Dr. Chan said the latest Ebola outbreak had expanded from a public health crisis to “a crisis for international peace and security.”

“I have never seen a health event threaten the very survival of societies and governments in already very poor countries,” she said in a statement. “I have never seen an infectious disease contribute so strongly to potential state failure [in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone].”

“The rich get the best care,” she said. “The poor are left to die.”

As we have seen with the arrival of Ebola in Texas, we live in an increasingly interconnected world, and so no longer have the luxury of ignoring misery in the Third World. “When a deadly and dreaded virus hits the destitute and spirals out of control, the whole world is put at risk,” Dr. Chan continued.

Of course, the short-term profit incentive also plays a role in the spread of diseases like Ebola.

Most Americans – and I am one of them – tell pollsters that they want the US government to shut down all flights and transit passengers from affected nations in Africa until the pandemic is over. Epidemiologists agree.

Yet passengers from those West African countries are still being admitted to the United States based upon a perfunctory screening – a temperature check upon arrival. The White House has issued two talking points to justify this policy: it’s impossible to transmit the disease unless you have visible symptoms, and a travel ban would make it harder for health professionals to travel to Africa in order to help people of victims there.

Both of these are untrue.

It is possible, in the early stage of the disease, for someone who merely seems to have a cold, to spread Ebola by shaking hands with someone or touching a surface that is subsequently accessed by another person. Sweat is one of the bodily fluids that carries Ebola. Furthermore, it is entirely possible to block, say, Liberians from entering the United States while allowing Americans to travel to Liberia.

If a travel ban is really a bad idea, opponents have yet to put forth a credible reason. I suspect that that is because the real reason is something they don’t want to talk about: reducing confidence in the aviation industry.

Ebola fears have already driven down airline stock prices by 12 percent. “With their ticket sales at risk, industry officials are going into overdrive to try and reassure the public that flying is safe,” reports The Hill.

Once again, the profit incentive comes ahead of public health. Which is why I and many other Americans believe that essential services – surely healthcare and transportation are among them – ought to be nationalized and run with the public, rather than short-term quarterly profits, in mind.

For aNewDomain,  I’m .

Based in New York, our Ted Rall is a Pulitzer Prize finalist who writes and draws about politics and culture here at aNewDomain. Check out his blog at rall.com and look for his new book, After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back as Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan. Follow him @tedrall and follow his posts on his Google+ page.