Panel Talks Ebola’s Political Impact

Nigerian physicians being trained by the World Health Organization (WHO) on how to put on and remove personal protective equipment (PPE) to treat Ebola patients. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons
Nigerian physicians being trained by the World Health Organization (WHO) on how to put on and remove personal protective equipment (PPE) to treat Ebola patients. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Three panelists discussed the economic, political and social impact of the Ebola virus in Liberia on Tuesday, part of a semester-long forum on the virus that began in late January.

The panel, titled “Ebola, a Neo-Liberal Disease?” and attended by more than 50 people, was organized by the Institute for Developing Nations, the Institute of African Studies and the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing and was held in the Psychology and Interdisciplinary Sciences (PAIS) building.

The panelists included Senior Project Coordinator for the Carter Center’s Access to Justice Project in Liberia Pewee Flomoku; Associate Professor of Finance at Goizueta Jeff Rosensweig and Director of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence and Professor of African Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Pamela Scully.

This panel was the second of seven discussions in the Ebola Faculty and Community Forum, which kicked off with a panel titled “Ebola: Past and Present in the U.S. and West Africa” on Jan. 26. The Forum is co-chaired by Deborah Bruner, Robert W. Woodruff Chair in Nursing; Sita Ranchod-Nilsson, director of Emory’s Institute for Developing Nations; and Scully.

Tuesday’s talk began with a presentation from Scully on the history of Liberia, which she said would help the audience understand why Ebola became an epidemic in the West African nation.

“History and politics enable us to understand why Ebola took hold of a country,” she said.

Scully noted that many of the ways Westerners view the Ebola epidemic in Liberia stem from “cultural explanations from the point of view of Western media.”

She cited, for example, perceptions that Liberian people are uneducated, naïve and refuse medical help, or engage in unsafe funeral practice.

Scully however suggested that there are many underlying structural reasons for this view, which “have to do with a really complicated history.”

She then went into explaining why Ebola may be a “neo-liberal disease.” The idea of neo-liberalism is generally tied to a set of policies in the 1980s that stressed free trade, Scully said. During this time period, many African countries became indebted to international banks such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). To pay back these debts, some countries, such as Liberia, were forced to cut funding for social services and health care.

Scully cited these spending cuts as a contribution to Liberia’s vulnerability to the Ebola virus as well as Liberia’s legacy of war.
The next panelist, Flomoku, joined the discussion via video-camera from Liberia.

Flomoku discussed his work with the Carter Center, a nongovernmental, non-profit organization that works to advance human rights and alleviate human suffering, and the Access to Justice program, which started in 2006.

Access to Justice in Liberia, a Carter Center program, “works in four areas with the aim of helping to create a working and responsive justice system consistent with local needs and human rights, paying special attention to rural areas and the needs of marginalized populations,” according to the Carter Center website.

Flomoku said that as part of this program they have focused on training at a local level. The focus has been how we could shape the thinking of the chiefs and that getting them on board was gong to help because they influence the community, he said.

He also discussed the difficulty of fighting the “stigma of survival” faced by Ebola survivors.

Rosensweig, the final panelist, focused on the economic implications of the Ebola virus.

He noted that although the Ebola epidemic has damaged the economy in Liberia and other African nations, those countries have made significant strides towards economic growth.

Rosensweig highlighted that many people focus on emerging markets such as China, Russia, and Brazil but often miss the frontier markets, markets that are emerging from dire poverty into economic growth.

Rosensweig cited many African countries as frontier markets. He highlighted their impressive growth rates over the years despite the Great Recession’s global reach and the Ebola epidemic’s catastrophic effects.

However, he said, Liberia’s economic future may depend on how they the nation uses its natural resources, such as iron ore.

Some African countries have made the mistake of letting foreign firms exploit their country for their natural resources, Rosenberg said. He called this the “natural resource curse.”

“Will [Liberians] subject themselves to the natural resources curse?” Rosensweig asked. “Or will they learn a lesson from Botswana and others and make sure they get something out of a partnership [with foreign agencies]?”

At the end of the lecture, the panelists answered questions from the audience. The forum’s next lecture, “Ebola and the Law in the U.S. and West Africa,” will take place at the Goizueta Business School on Monday Feb. 23

— By Annie McGrew, Asst. News Editor