Inequality remains the real killer in Africa - as the Ebola outbreak has shown

Images of listless patients, lying on mats in makeshift clinics, play into a false narrative of inevitability

Joan Smith
Sunday 15 March 2015 01:00
Comments
Red Cross health workers in Liberia
Red Cross health workers in Liberia

Three days ago, a British healthcare worker who contracted the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone was flown back to the UK. She is now being treated at the Royal Free Hospital in London where two British nurses, William Pooley and Pauline Cafferkey, were successfully treated in the past. Five other British healthcare workers were flown home last week after suspected contact with the virus.

I hugely admire Western health workers who go to West Africa, and I don’t begrudge them the best possible treatment when they are exposed to the virus. But the striking difference in survival rates between African victims and Western patients who are flown home tells an uncomfortable story. Even the best hospitals in the Western world would struggle to cope with a full-scale Ebola epidemic, rather than the isolated cases we have seen so far. But the countries affected by the current outbreak didn’t have anything like adequate health services to begin with.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve found images of African victims so hard to bear. Images of listless patients, lying on mats in makeshift clinics, play into a false narrative of inevitability; like famine, this is what happens in Africa. But it isn’t: the chief reason why Africans are more likely than Westerners to die from Ebola is inequality. The contrast with a handful of British patients, who are transported from RAF planes in mobile isolation units, and attended by a phalanx of health professionals, is almost too painful to contemplate.

When the first Ebola patients were diagnosed in Sierra Leone, I thought of the doctors and nurses I met on my first trip there seven years ago and wondered how they could possibly cope. When a matron showed me around Freetown’s Connaught Hospital, I was shocked by the lack of basic equipment; I was equally shocked by the diseases they were struggling to treat on a daily basis, including malaria, meningitis and tetanus. Elsewhere in the country, I met young adults with wasted legs and discovered that they had contracted polio when they were children, at a time when it had all but disappeared in Europe.

In the US, there are fewer than 2.5 doctors for every 100,000 residents; in Sierra Leone, when the Ebola outbreak began, the comparable figure was 0.22. There were around 134 doctors and little more than 1,000 nurses to care for a population of six million, and 11 local doctors died in the first nine months. In all, across the three worst affected countries – Guinea and Liberia as well as Sierra Leone – a total of 339 health workers had died by the end of last year.

Few countries in the world were in a worse position to deal with a deadly virus. Last week, according to the World Health Organisation, the death toll in West Africa passed 10,000. It’s a dreadful milestone, but the reason it’s so high is that Ebola has attacked populations made vulnerable by inequality.

Twitter.com/@polblonde; politicalblonde.com

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in