The language is familiar. “A potential threat of a human catastrophe unparalleled in modern times.” More than 2,500 have died, and the same number are dying. Incidence of the disease is said to be doubling, even trebling, in some parts of Africa by the month. Hundreds of thousands now face death. Barack Obama declares a menace “spiralling out of control, getting worse … with profound economic, political and security implications for all of us”. The window of opportunity to contain the outbreak is apparently closing.
Africa is now six months into the worst Ebola epidemic in modern history. The director general of the World Health Organisation, Margaret Chan, calls the outbreak “the largest, most complex and most severe we’ve ever seen”. The UN remarks that we could “stop the Ebola outbreak in west Africa in six to nine months, but only if a massive global response is implemented”. As it is, the number of new cases is moving far faster than the capacity to manage them. According to Chan, “there is not one single bed available for the treatment of an Ebola patient in the entire country of Liberia”.
The language of crisis is banal. Threat, disaster and catastrophe lie flat on the page. The nouns may be awesome, but are let down by qualifiers: “could”, “may face”, “potential”. We see lines of Africans waiting helplessly to die, but we have seen many of those over the years. The suspicion is always of hyperbole, what Americans call agency log-rolling. When Obama speaks of Ebola having “profound security implications” I eyed my nearest defence lobbyist.
The true measure of how seriously the world takes a “crisis” is not the description but the response. This Ebola outbreak began last December. America is now slowly coming forward, with 17 treatment centres, and “training 500 medical staff”. Cuba is sending 165 helpers. China is sending 60. Britain is “planning a clinic”. Nurses are flying to help, former patients giving blood and volunteers queuing in Oxford for vaccine trials.
The lumbering dinosaur of the drugs industry has at least been galvanised into life. GlaxoSmithKline is producing 10,000 doses of vaccine in case tests show it can work. True, as with the experimental cure ZMapp, the vaccines will go to medical workers. But the regulators have found they can process the paperwork “in just four working days”, when it takes months, even years, to process other life-saving drugs. We might ask: why the difference?
This belated activity hardly measures up to the words quoted in my first paragraph. Ebola was first isolated in 1976. Central Africa has experienced increasing outbreaks since the mid-1990s. Yet this spring there were still no drugs available and no sign of the millions of dollars required in associated aid. The best Washington’s federal drug administration could do, under the cosh of the pharmaceutical firms, was warn Africans against fake medicines. Pushing untested “experimental” ones was unethical, it said. Drug companies had enough trouble before when accused of testing drugs on developing countries. Whatever the crisis, there must be no bad karma for big pharma.
Contrast this hesitant humanitarian intervention with the hysteria driving the next military intervention by the west in Iraq. This needed no talk of catastrophe and disaster, no trumpets and drums from the media. Events in Syria and Iraq were monstrous, inhuman, cruel and – as we British say – unacceptable. So a “threat to national security” is declared and, bang, in go the air strikes. Anyone who protests is a wimp. America is putting 1,600 troops back on Iraqi soil “as advisers”. Iraq is said already to be flooded with special forces. Another Baghdad government has been toppled and a new one is lauded as a saviour.
Every military pundit now warns against doing in Iraq precisely what Islamic State (Isis) wants, which is offer it a powerful Christian enemy to rally jihadists to its flag. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in Washington, is deaf to such warnings. He says he will be deploying ground troops in rescue missions and even “attacks against specific Isil targets”. The Pentagon was planning to widen “the types of targets it hits from the air, focusing on Islamic State leaders”. That was, said Dempsey, a “first step”. And the step after that? The idea of military escalation seems to electrify democratic politicians the world over. David Cameron dives to his bunker. Tabloids scream for revenge. Everyone congas to the deadly dance of mission creep.
It must be ever more likely that a fundamentalist enclave in western Iraq will survive for a while. As with the Taliban’s rule in Kabul, we helped create it and will have to live with it. After the most appalling slaughter, much of it at our hands, we find another part of the world resolutely refusing to behave as we ordered. We bomb and kill, and it is as bad as it was before, probably worse.
That said, the most encouraging news this week was that al-Qaida in Syria had pleaded with Isis not to kill aid workers, since they were trying to save Muslim lives. This was some antidote to one of the gloomiest talks I have heard recently, given at Chatham House by Yves Daccord, director general of the international Red Cross. Never, he said, had humanitarian relief work been so compromised as now through being seen as a proxy for one side or another in a civil conflict.
Frequently, as in Syria, the Red Cross was seen as on the side of the ruling regime; elsewhere it was seen as on the side of rebels. Everywhere its image was tarnished by association with foreign, especially western, military intervention. The humanitarian ethic of the Red Cross and the early UN had become corrupted by militarism. Local commanders, said Daccord, demand that the UN and its local agents, “prove to me that you are really independent and impartial, that your service is relevant”.
Relating the relief of suffering to “national security” – as Obama does, even in the case of Ebola – is madness. A casualty of the “anti-terror” wars of the past 15 years has been the confusion of humanitarian with politico/military intervention. It not only undermines the ideological purity of aid but also endangers aid workers. The impartiality of the founders of the Red Cross and the UN has been swamped in the rush to war. Humanity loses out to killing.
We have dithered for six months over Ebola in Africa, yet in Iraq chase once more that will-o’-the wisp of political machismo: the perfect bomb strike.
Simon Jenkins is a journalist and author.