Ebola and Inequality
By Joseph E. Stiglitz – November 10, 2014
NEW YORK – The Ebola crisis reminds us, once again, of the downside of globalization. Not only good things – like principles of social justice and gender equality – cross borders more easily than ever before; so do malign influences like environmental problems and disease.
The crisis also reminds us of the importance of government and civil society. We do not turn to the private sector to control the spread of a disease like Ebola. Rather, we turn to institutions – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, the World Health Organization (WHO), and Médecins Sans Frontières, the remarkable group of doctors and nurses who risk their lives to save those of others in poor countries around the world.
Even right-wing fanatics who want to dismantle government institutions turn to them when facing a crisis like that caused by Ebola. Governments may not do a perfect job in addressing such crises, but one of the reasons that they have not done as well as we would hope is that we have underfunded the relevant agencies at the national and global level.
The Ebola episode holds further lessons. One reason that the disease spread so rapidly in Liberia and Sierra Leone is that both are war-ravaged countries, where a large proportion of the population is malnourished and the health-care system has been devastated.
Moreover, where the private sector does play an essential role – vaccine development – it has little incentive to devote resources to diseases that afflict the poor or poor countries. It is only when advanced countries are threatened that there is sufficient impetus to invest in vaccines to confront diseases like Ebola.
This is not so much a criticism of the private sector; after all, drug companies are not in business out of the goodness of their hearts, and there is no money in preventing or curing the diseases of the poor. Rather, what the Ebola crisis calls into question is our reliance on the private sector to do the things that governments perform best. Indeed, it appears that with more public funding, an Ebola vaccine could have been developed years ago.
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