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Ebola and the Price of Africans

The thing about Ebola is it’s effing awful. It has an incubation period of 21 days and its symptoms include fever, severe headache, muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain, and unexplained bleeding or bruising.

Perhaps what is worse still, is the world’s response to Ebola. The first cases of infected persons in West Africa are recorded to have been in December 2013, so it is astounding that it has taken, arguably, several months for the rest of the world to take Ebola seriously. This point is further exacerbated when more recent projections show that as many as 1.4 million people in Sierra Leone and Liberia could be infected and potentially die by January of 2015.

Dallas
Since the first diagnosed Ebola case in the U.S., there has been much more discourse on the state of affairs surrounding Ebola. In a CNN segment, Tara Setmayer, a conservative political commentator expressed her thoughts regarding Ebola. See below:

There are several issues I take with Tara Setmayer’s words. Firstly, when she addresses the issue of the Ebola patient (Thomas Eric Duncan) in Dallas she is quite candid in her view that someone coming from Liberia is likely to lie about their possible contact with infected persons in order to travel abroad. This introduces the idea that one is ‘guilty until proven innocent’ which goes against the presumption of innocence. Not only is she making assumptions she cannot aptly justify, she is making Duncan out to be some kind of villain who purposefully contracted this dreadful virus with some evil plot to further spread the epidemic purely because he’s African.
On the contrary Nima Elbagir had a differing opinion. See link below:

http://edition.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/bestoftv/2014/10/08/ac-nima-elbagir-on-liberia-ebola-timeline.cnn.html

So what can we establish from this. Not only does this suggest that Duncan was unaware that he may have contracted Ebola, his biggest flaw was being compassionate enough to help a pregnant young woman up after she collapsed. What a villain!
Setmayer isn’t the first person to think in this manner. In 1998 the U.S. Embassies in the cities of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were bombed by terrorists. Hundreds were killed and thousands were wounded (locals and expats). It was reported that locals in the Nairobi area moved to assist in whatever way they could, only to be turned away by American marines and personnel, who were under the impression that the locals would take advantage of this tragic event to steal from the embassy. Not only could this have been at the expense of the injured, but it further perpetuates the idea that it is okay to make Africans out to be unfeeling, menacing beings. As an African, this is simply heartbreaking.

Why must we always get involved?
Setmayer also insinuates that she is unhappy with the necessity for foreign aid in West Africa and doesn’t understand “why the U.S. (always) has to be at the forefront of it.”
To make my point, I want to begin by addressing the shared history between Liberia and the U.S. In 1816, a group of White Americans founded the American Colonization Society (ACS). With the number of free blacks growing, they were trying to figure out what to do with them. In short they decided to colonize Liberia and ‘return and or dispose of’ some of the free slaves. Some abolitionists opposed this for moral reasons and some people opposed it because they wanted to retain some of the black folk for labour and military purposes for the future. Colonization and enslavement took place on the continent of Africa. Among the colonialists were the British and French who had occupied several territories in West Africa and seemed to encroach on the territory the ACS wanted to retain possession of. So in order to have Liberia recognised as a sovereign state capable of retaining its borders, the American settlers declared independence from the ACS. We can’t ignore that there were some black Pan-Africanist’s that romanticised the idea of ‘coming home’ so to speak, but as Richard Wright and many others, they had been kept away from their roots for so long, reintegrating was not only hard but disheartening.

“Where the rubber meets the road”
In the 1920s, the U.S. began searching for rubber resources. The U.S. Secretary of Commerce at the time, Herbert Hoover, in conjunction with American business magnate, Harvey Samuel Firestone (owner of Firestone Tire & Rubber Company), wanted access to natural resources that were being constrained by other colonialist governments- that would be under America’s control. In 1926 the Liberian government granted Firestone the right to lease up to one million acres, creating the world’s largest plantation in Harbel, Liberia.

What’s been happening since?
Now it has been argued that the 99-year lease at 6 cents per acre, while liberal to Firestone, was also beneficial for the Liberian government who needed the money they made off of the rubber market to keep from being taken over by other colonialists. More recently, in 2005, Firestone signed a 37-year lease with the government of Liberia. That same year, “workers at the Harbel plantation filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court under alien tort claims act, charging Firestone with using forced labour and child labour.” A United Nations Mission in Liberia report supported many of the workers claims, while Firestone also admitted negligence concerning its own policy prohibiting child labour. One of the reasons found as to why children were working on the rubber plantation had to do with a “pressure to meet unrealistic company quotas”.

Firestone and Ebola
In the past few days we have learned of the effort Firestone has made to keep their territory Ebola-free, by establishing their own clinic on a rubber farm where they isolate and treat victims within the Firestone community (consisting of approximately 80,000 workers and their families). Firestone’s is certainly an admirable initiative, even if the wealth and resources available to the company is what has enabled them to be so proactive. It is worth noting, however, the somewhat volatile relationship that Firestone has had with Liberia. During the Great Depression when rubber prices fell, Firestone wanted the U.S. government to send a warship to Monrovia (capital) to enforce debt repayment and protect Firestone’s investment in the country. Additionally, given the history of Firestone in Liberia as far as possible human rights violations, we cannot escape the opinion that Firestone could merely be protecting its financial investment. Quite frankly, it is not often that large corporations see their employees as more than faceless numbers. Nevertheless, one cannot dismiss that their advances are somewhat avant-garde as far as this Ebola outbreak goes.

Inconsequential Colonization
Something, as an African, I have never been able to comprehend is this idea that we are supposed to forget what was done to destroy us by greedy, merciless colonialists, and yet we are not afforded the right to claim that the weak institutions in Africa are in part due to the repercussions of enslavement and colonization. As children we are all taught that our actions have consequences and yet it seems colonization, according to some people in the western world, is inconsequential. This cannot surely be the case, as prior to Scramble for Africa we certainly did not have 54 countries and weren’t engaging in civil war after civil war. A negative in insisting on the enforcement of accountability, is admitting where you have royally screwed-up; economic and social stability should not be a prerequisite for who is extricated from this reality and who is subject to it. So while we cannot entirely blame the west for Africa’s lack of desirable progress in the strengthening of her institutions, I cannot reconcile the idea that so many western nations have used her (for instance for rubber) and continue to use her, in her vulnerable state, for their own benefits while passing off the dollar-a-day campaigns as making a positive difference. All this, only for an epidemic like Ebola to unveil how long it would take for the western world to make an ACTUAL difference when it truly counts.

CNN correspondent Isha Sesay conveyed the following message:

So what is my point? The irony of Setmayer’s frustration over the U.S. involvement in Liberia is how closely tied the U.S. is to the African nation. Not only is her pernicious attitude towards people who are not dying of their own volition of ill repute, but her blatant lack of empathy for people who have only recently emerged from a second civil war, leaves me wondering what her definition of humanity is. At what point do you look at a man and tell him that because he fell below the standards of humanity set by the western world, his death is justifiable?

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Depiction of Pre-colonial Africa. (Photo credit:http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/01/13/40-more-maps-that-explain-the-world/)

For many years the rest of the world has de-humanised Africans. This is why the tear-jerker TVC’s and ‘poor-nography’ will never play a positive role in progressing Africa’s nations. Africans are seen as helpless, primitive, undetermined, unattractive, illiterate, shameful, barbaric beings, that don’t even really qualify as human. People may not expressly say these words, but it has been communicated by conduct for so many years that we may have started to believe this of ourselves; perhaps morale plays more of a role than the western world realises. So before you chastise us for being ill-prepared to deal with an epidemic none of us asked for, please acknowledge the role you played and in some areas continue to play in the weakness of our institutions.

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Photo credit: Steve Evans (https://www.flickr.com/photos/babasteve/3423517521/in/photolist-nMMip-koaRAz-5tg2Ez-5nYYKy-5tSqje-5t5nwH-5uqxs9-ptgHQT-6dwqua-oDXNYx-69YXTN-8LH4pr-7EjtE-brDb7M-Su9eY-scqvP-bxED7X-e3fHSc-aghHr7-vPpZt)

Finally, perhaps the biggest oxymoron about Setmayer’s words, is the fact that the woman herself is what society may term an African American. Now of course she may not identify with this title, similarly to Raven-Symoné who just this week said that she does not identify as an African American, but simply an American. I take no issue with this at all. Congratulations to anyone who can identify him/herself so decidedly. But the fact is Setmayer’s black. And whether she likes it or not, it is probable she has some ties to Africa, even if they are so remote that she could live more than comfortably having never set foot in the motherland. Black Americans gain nothing from the denigration of black Africans, so why do it? The mere fact that your ancestors were put on the Aurore and mine were put to work in a field in Africa, should not be a justification for your lack of empathy. This isn’t an attempt to play the supposed race-card, it’s a choice to address what could be seen as an ethnic inequality.

The great James Baldwin in his critique of Uncle Tom’s Cabin said “Our passion for categorisation, life neatly fitted into pegs, has led to an unforeseen, paradoxical distress; confusion, a breakdown of meaning. Those categories which were meant to define and control the world for us have boomeranged us into chaos; in which limbo we whirl, clutching the straws of our definitions.” The struggle against Ebola cannot so easily be classified as West Africa’s problem. It is everyones problem. As long as we are living we owe an implied duty of care to each other, not by law, but by virtue that we share this earth. That we- all of us- are human.

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