How Ebola, a Virus Not Worth Curing, Turned Into an Epidemic - Smaller States, Public Health and Pharmaceuticals

03/04/2014 11:15 BST | Updated 02/06/2014 10:59 BST


There is an outbreak of Ebola virus in Guinea. Ebola is found in isolated communities and it is so lethal that it kills 90% of those infected by it. Ebola virus was firstly identified in 1976, in the small village of Yambuku in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For nearly forty years since then the international community has failed to dedicate considerable resources towards finding a cure, permitting the spread of the virus to the level of an "unprecedented epidemic". This is what happens when public health is left to the hands of private pharmaceuticals.

There is no cure or vaccine for Ebola. The reason is economic. Hundreds of millions of pounds are needed for a potential cure and no third-party will spend so much money in what is considered a bad investment - Ebola affects a very poor part of the world, mostly rural Central Africa, and it used to be geographically isolated, despite it being highly contagious and lethal. It is only recently that the virus reached densely populated cities, like Conakry, the capital of Guinea.

The only way to find a cure or a vaccine for the virus is if the international community decides to collectively allocate funds for R&D. Relying on private funding for dealing with public health issues results in epidemics such as this. The driving motivation behind private companies is profit for their shareholders. If the profit is not attainable then the cost-benefit analysis of preventing deaths and highly contagious diseases from spreading is negative. Do we really want to leave these decisions to the private sector?

The most pressing issue is whether Western states will indeed be able to respond to these crises in the near future. Will they be in position to deal authoritatively with these challenges or will they have no power and financial ability to do so? We see a trend towards public companies and public wealth being handed over to the private sector, often at comically low prices. We also see the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank -- the biggest international financial institutions of the West -- giving loans to bankrupt or nearly bankrupt countries, under the condition that they sell-off their public services and national wealth. We also see the British Prime Minister advocating for "a leaner, more efficient, more affordable state". Will these crippled states be able to guarantee the health of their citizens and the well being of people living in less privileged parts of the world? We need to avoid the situation where considerations of general welfare will be conditional upon private profit and appropriation of public resources.

Western states are getting smaller and so is their ability to deal with large problems. The mantra of the proponents of privatisation is that the private sector is more efficient than state-owned businesses and that competition will drive prices down. When concerns of general welfare are raised, the office of the regulator is mentioned as someone who will be able to protect the pubic interest. As we can see by the skewed energy market in the UK, the reassurances are not really working.

Do we really want to leave our wellbeing to the hands of a public regulator, whose power relies on the bargaining position of the state, which is being increasingly weakened? The PM suggested that we deal with the high energy prices by putting another jumper on. This year we managed to get by - the winter was mild and people who could not afford to turn their heater on didn't freeze to death in their living rooms. What about the cases where a jumper won't do? Will the state be in a position to spend large amounts of money on non-profitable causes over a very short period of time in order to deal with challenges of public health and safety? What happens when general welfare and private profit are in conflict? Will a smaller state be able to stand up for the public interest, or will we see another lethal and contagious disease spreading because finding a cure is not a profitable endevour?

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