The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has not yet been contained. The World Health Organization fears that weekly infections could rise to some 10,000 persons, with a 70% mortality rate.
Media attention and political discussions focus on the public sector response, which is appropriate once an epidemic has broken out. Less discussed, however, are the conditions which gave rise to the outbreak.
In brief, they are the consequences of poverty and the absence of successful economic take-off in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The failure of these societies and their governments to incubate and foster robust wealth creation is largely responsible for the epidemic.
The fundamental ethical achievements of capitalism are the creation of jobs, the lowering of costs for consumer goods and services and the spread of new wealth – even though not optimally distributed. Through wealth, new technologies are made widely available, tax receipts are higher so public services improve and the quality of public goods, such as transportation, communications, health care and education, becomes much, much better.
In wealthy countries, sanitation and health facilities are not lacking. Doctors and nurses are plentiful and well-trained. Rubber surgical gloves are available in vast quantities everywhere.
In poor countries, it is the reverse. Resources – material and human capital – are missing. The capacity of such societies and their public administrations to respond quickly and effectively to any challenge is meager. The topic of weak governance and its impact on the most recent Ebola epidemic was written about, in August, here: Exposing the Failures of Local and Global Governance.
The Washington Post recently reported that:
“The United States and other foreign donors are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure and medical supplies to stem the tide of Ebola in West Africa. But the biggest constraint is not the lack of hospitals — it is the lack of doctors and nurses to fill them, as key Liberian healthcare workers contract the disease or resign out of fear that they will be next.”
Liberia has only several dozen doctors in the entire country.
Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone and their peoples suffer from the inequality of distribution of income and wealth, which is now being widely discussed in the wealthy parts of the world, thanks in part to the book Capital, written by French scholar Thomas Piketty.
When threats like an outbreak of Ebola arise, the only way to get the advantages of wealth applied to remedy the problem is through charity – those with wealth must help those without.
The contagion cannot be contained in the poor countries where the outbreak first occurs. The spread of the disease will embrace, in time, wealthy countries, as well.
However, given their resources, those who live at higher levels of GDP per capita are well-positioned to contain the spread of such infections. This proved true with the SARS virus and with various influenzas coming from poor areas in Asia, but less so in the case of HIV, which also first arose in very poor communities.
How much better, though, would we be if all our economies were fecund with wealth production? Resources would be available locally all over the world to confront disasters and epidemics. Village communities in rural areas would be more masters of fate than its victims. Contagions would be quickly contained.
Witney Schneidman recently wrote an interesting piece on how government could better partner with NGOs, private investors and businesses to bring the necessary aid and supplies to Ebola-stricken areas.
But the question still remains: who, then, should be responsible for expanding the wealth effects of good capitalism - business, governments, NGOs, private investors, churches?