Ebola & Islamic Extremism: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

airport Ebola screening

Airport Ebola screening

Although American officials are making lots of reassuring noises about screening passengers coming from West Africa for signs of the dreaded Ebola virus, the truth is that the only way to totally safeguard against the spread of the disease is to close our borders entirely. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Talk about an unexpected side effect of globalization. Goods and services spread around the globe at the stroke of a keyboard or the roar of a jet engine, but the same mechanisms we celebrate as having pumped up the global economy also, potentially, have a darker side.

What was it Marx said about the bourgeoisie digging its own grave?

I keep hearing the undertone, in the media reporting on Ebola, of the “blame-the-victim” complaint, “What’s wrong with these people? Why are they living in such poverty? Why don’t they have doctors, nurses, hospitals? Look how their squalor is putting us all at risk?!”

There is truth to this. The poor folks in Liberia, Guinea and Sierre Leone, former colonies of the U.S., France and Great Britain, respectively, have not managed to modernize their societies. This is due to a number of factors, including corrupt leadership (strongmen often propped up by the Western powers), violent civil wars (armed by Western weapons manufacturers and distributors), and banana republic-style economies where Western corporations rule by extraction, extortion and exploitation, without giving anything back in taxes, infrastructure or education for the local people.

This is where the West has made its big mistake. How could we in the so-called developed world be so naïve as to think that we could ignore the poverty and suffering of other parts of the globe without that poverty and suffering coming back to haunt us?

Liberian child soldier

Liberian child soldier

If we had invested in schools, medical facilities and housing in Liberia, instead of sending endless supplies of assault rifles and ammunition, we would not be worrying about Ebola now.

Likewise, if we had invested in education and economic development in the Middle East, instead of relying corrupt warlords to keep the population in line, we would not be dealing with a seemingly endless morphing insurgency of Taliban-Al Quaeda-Islamic State terrorists.

It really is true that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

In a globalized society, pretending that vast disparities of wealth don’t matter is just plain stupid. Imagining that a vicious virus can be contained by airport thermometer checks is as ridiculous as imagining that an international terrorist network can be stopped by a few fly-by bombings.

The world’s leaders need to take a lesson from Malala Yousefzai, the 17-year-old girl who won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her steadfast insistence, even after nearly having her head blown off by the Taliban, that girls should be educated.

Malala Yousefzai, winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace prize

Malala Yousefzai, winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace prize

Study after study has shown that when a society educates and empowers women, it becomes more economically successful and more politically stable.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

This week, in my African Women Writing Resistance class, I’ve been reading and discussing the autobiography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and first woman head of state in modern Africa.

Sirleaf, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, has been in the news a lot lately, begging for help in containing the spread of Ebola and warning grimly of the consequences of international inaction.

She came to office vowing to take her country back from the warlords and reintegrate child soldiers, to educate girls and boys and build a sustainable economy. She’s made great strides, but the stark pictures of the pathetic state of the nation’s health care infrastructure make it clear how far Liberia, like other poor African nations, still has to go.

The bottom line is this: if we want safety, we have to build towards it, step by step, from the ground up. We can’t ignore poverty and then get mad when impoverished sick people dare to infect us, or when desperate people turn to radical Islam as a way out of their misery.

Child worker on Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia

Child worker on Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia

There is no excuse, in our globalized world, for the dramatic disparities of wealth and poverty that exist today. Those of us lucky enough to live comfortably in the U.S. or Europe should be using our privilege to advocate for those less fortunate.

Not just out of altruism. Out of self-preservation, too.

If we had been helping Liberia and other West African nations build good social infrastructure, instead of extracting profits from diamonds, rubber and gun sales, we would not be worrying about the spread of Ebola today.

If we had been educating children in Syria, Yemen and Iraq instead of supporting corrupt dictators and ignoring the plight of ordinary people, we would not be facing the spread of Islamic extremism today.

How many innocent humans will have to die before we begin to understand that simple adage? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

What President Obama and Eve Ensler have in common

President Obama did something really, really good this week.  He sent 100 Special Ops military “advisors” to Central Africa to help local government forces get rid of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group of crazed, vicious thugs who have been terrorizing people in four countries for as long as many in the region can remember.

The New York Times reports: “For more than two decades, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has murdered, raped and kidnapped tens of thousands of men, women and children in central Africa,” Mr. Obama wrote in a letter to Congress announcing the military deployment. “The LRA continues to commit atrocities across the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan that have a disproportionate impact on regional security.”

You don’t even want to know what kind of atrocities he’s talking about.  Joseph Kony and his men are depraved, sick torturers, rapists and murderers who have been at it so long that I doubt they can ever be rehabilitated.  They are part of a long cycle of violence in Africa that begins with the kidnapping or luring in of young children, boys and girls, who are then drugged, beaten and raped into total submission to the authority of the adults, and grow up indoctrinated into the lifestyle of terror.

For an inside story, read Ismael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone, or the chapter in my anthology African Women Writing Resistance by former girl child soldier China Keitetsi, whose memoir Child Soldier is available in an e-book edition.

I can’t help but think that there is an element of racism in the fact that it’s taken so long for the international community to unite behind the mission of bringing true security to Central Africa (including the Democratic Republic of Congo, where some of the worst human rights violations in the world are taking place daily, with women and girls disproportionately targeted.)

When Bosnian men were massacred, people thrown out of their homes, and women and girls imprisoned in rape camps by the Serbs, the Clinton Administration waged an all-out war to stop it.  All that and more has been happening in the DRC and neighboring countries for decades.  Decades.

Eve Ensler has done a tremendous amount to get the word out about the impact of all this violence on women, not just in Africa but throughout the world.  I particularly admire her because she has used art as the medium for her outspoken calls for solidarity and resistance with victims of rape and violence–starting with “The Vagina Monologues,” and moving on through a host of books and plays.

She’s also used digital media to get her word out and build a global movement to end violence against women, and I don’t think anyone does it better–check out her website, vday.org, to see for yourself.

Eve Ensler is a great example of a woman of privilege who has used all of her talents and gifts to reach out and help others–and not through begging, cajoling or guilt-tripping, either, but through the sheer power of her spoken and written word.

President Obama has the power to send in the military, and it’s good he’s at least taken the first step in that direction.

We ordinary people have power too, more than we often realize.  We can open our eyes to what’s really happening in our towns, our country and our world, and then allow our hearts to show us the way to action for positive social change.

There is no more urgent task for each of us in our lifetimes.  This is what we came here to do.

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