The West’s failure to pre-empt Ebola

Ebola nurses Image copyright Getty Images

In a globalised world, neither money nor viruses are great respecters of national borders. They both tend to move with the movement of humans, and they are both hard to detect when humans want to hide them or don't know they are carrying them.

That is why effective global governance - institutions that make decisions in the interests of the world, not competing nations - are so increasingly important for our health and wealth (by the way, don't pipe up about the environment and global warming being another example - yes of course that's right).

Arguably the world's governance is, even on an optimistic view, second best when it comes to the eradication of disease and of beggar-my-neighbour national tax and financial regulation policies.

Institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, or gatherings of the great national economic powers, such as the G20, swing into action only after a crisis. Too much history shows they are pretty hopeless at pre-empting crises.

And even when they address a debacle, often the reforms represent a lowest-common-denominator compromise between national or regional vested interests, rather than optimal long term solutions.

Long term damage

My exhibits in laying these charges won't surprise you: they are the great 2008 crash and recession, and the failure of swathes of the world especially in Europe to return to decent growth even now; and Ebola.

In the case of that dreadful disease, the World Bank has today published a report that says that if the disease is eradicated only slowly in the countries where it is most rife - Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone - and it spreads to neighbouring countries, the cost to West Africa would be $32.6bn by the end of 2015, or 2.5 times the combined national incomes of those three most afflicted nations.

This is a massive cost.

And it takes no account of potential longer term damage, if skills are lost as schools close or talented people die and migrate, if tourism and investment fail to recover, and if others die unnecessarily of different diseases because they stay away from hospitals where they might catch Ebola.

The World Bank also makes no calculation of lost income in the rest of the world, if stricter border checks and controls are introduced throughout the planet, to contain the spread of the disease.

Now, of course, the financial cost is trivial compared with the human tragedy of the deaths of so many thousands.

But the money matters. Because if these African economies are shattered, many will die or live more appalling lives for want of livelihoods.

The World Bank is therefore urging rich nations to spend big now, to rescue west Africa - and, by implication, to protect themselves.

Serious investment

But here's the not-very-funny punchline: the cost to us would have been so much less in the developed world if we had had devoted serious resources to finding a cure or vaccine at some point in the almost-40 years since the first outbreak of the disease.

There is little point in moaning about the historic failure of big multinational drug companies to spend important sums on researching Ebola: it is hardly a secret that private-sector money flows to where shortish-term and big rewards can be generated; and therefore few commercial companies will devote significant sums to finding a cure for a disease that appeared to afflict poor people and whose outbreaks were sporadic.

But the potential for Ebola to wreak global havoc has been known for decades.

Only the public sector has the ability to take a long term view of potential risks such as that from Ebola and then invest seriously in minimising that risk.

Actually that is not quite right: philanthropic institutions such as the Gates Foundation and One make a non-trivial contribution to improving health in poorer countries.

But even they tend to concentrate on tackling known and calculable risks, rather than harder to quantify potentially catastrophic ones.

Which is why, some might say, there is a need to rethink the architecture (sorry for being so pretentious) of how rich nations can tackle potential threats to our wellbeing before those threats materialise.

The minimum, arguably, is a proper recognition that globalisation is real, for money and disease (inter alia), and that therefore nations will only prosper if they sacrifice rather more of their autonomy (or their sovereignty, to use a more loaded phrase) when making decisions on money and disease (and, yes, many would say climate change too).

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