Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2418

State clamps down on the poor as Ebola crisis spreads to Liberia

This article is over 9 years, 9 months old
Thousands blockaded in slums as west African government can’t cope with epidemic, writes Dave Sewell
Issue 2418
Red Cross workers in Liberia, where poverty makes the Ebola virus more deadly
Red Cross workers in Liberia, where poverty makes the Ebola virus more deadly (Pic: EC/ECHO/Jean-Louis Mosser/flickr)

The spreading outbreak of Ebola in west Africa has triggered a crisis in the impoverished and war-torn state of Liberia.

The number of cases in the country had passed 1,000 by Friday of last week. Across the region there are more than 2,400 cases leading to 1,300 deaths, according to the World Health Organisation.

The real toll may be much higher, as many patients are beyond the reach of what little healthcare exists.

The Liberian government declared a state of emergency and a national curfew. And between 50,000 and 100,000 people have been penned in by barbed wire blockades to quarantine West Point, the country’s biggest slum.

Troops patrol the streets, stopping residents from getting out to work or to buy food and other people from getting in to West Point market.

Soldiers fired at crowds protesting against the occupation of West Point on Thursday of last week, killing at least one.

The informal settlement has no public toilets, with only the beach and makeshift wooden toilets on the riverside.

And Liberia’s capital Monrovia does not have a single public hospital for its population of 1.3 million. This leaves the response to the Ebola outbreak almost wholly reliant on international aid.

Aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has 125 patients crammed into a centre designed for 60 people in Lofa county, the epicentre of the outbreak. It hopes to upgrade its largest facility, in Monrovia, from 125 patients to 700.


MSF says the response from Western governments such as Britain has been “non-existent”.

Media coverage in Britain has largely focused on the relatively small numbers of Westerners caught up in it. There have even been calls for tough border controls against tourists, migrant workers and international students from west Africa.

But while Ebola is deadly and incurable, it can only be transmitted through bodily fluids. It can be kept from spreading with basic hygiene and healthcare.

It takes poverty to turn it into an epidemic. But decades of Western domination have left poverty as the norm for large parts of Africa.

In Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo the West’s attempts to maintain control over rich resources have fuelled brutal wars. They have left a legacy of even deeper deprivation.

Years of repression have fuelled such fear and suspicion that some Liberians believe Ebola is a hoax and are helping patients to hide from doctors.

Now even in countries such as Guinea, where some progress had been made in containing Ebola, treatment centres are reopening as the outbreak spreads from Liberia.

The Ebola disaster could claim thousands more lives. 

Stopping it will take urgent and substantial aid. Preventing it happening again will take a real challenge to the poverty and oppression that blights millions of lives across the region.

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