Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Foreign Policy of Ebola

By Svati PazhyanurPublished October 24, 2014

While fears over the outbreak of Ebola have spurred calls for extreme measures, including trade restrictions and complete travel bans, cutting off Africa from the rest of the world would have devastating consequences for every country involved. Rather than attempting to quarantine the continent, the international community should bolster public health interventions in place and assist struggling countries with continued economic, political and infrastructural support.
By Svati Pazhyanur, 10/24/14

Over the past few weeks, the word "Ebola" has infected the news, social media, and just about every conversation that mentions anything about Africa. Despite the fact that the outbreak has largely been contained to three countries and is not very infectious, the idea that this terror-inducing virus has come from the distant Africa has permeated the western world's conversation about Ebola. Mic recently published an excellent article documenting the explosion of the Ebola conversation, which occurred when  two missionaries were transported to Atlanta in August and when Thomas E. Duncan arrived in Dallas this month. It would seem as though the world's interest in Ebola is not one of a generalized concern for human life, but rather one of a fear that "Third World" diseases can somehow permeate the barriers we have created between us and them

While the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have agreed that the threat of a pandemic of Ebola is extremely slim, the panic spreading throughout the U.S. and Europe is astounding. News sources are publishing more about Ebola than any other health or foreign policy story. The world hasn't stopped producing interesting stories; Ebola is so unique in its ability to invoke fear and interest that it is the most profitable story to run. Other than the fact that this focus exacerbates the spread of inaccurate information, a disproportionate focus on Ebola has also caused irrational calls for extreme measures to be taken: namely, to cut all ties with Africa.

Any public health official would agree that some travel restrictions must be put in place for countries experiencing an outbreak of a dangerous disease. Yet, calls to cancel meetings with African officials, completely cut off trade with Africa and halt all travel from the continent are dangerously unfounded and have implications beyond the short term span of the outbreak. First, lumping all of Africa together as one entity is exactly the kind of "otherizing" mindset that has inhibited beneficial relationships and coordination with countries such as South Africa and Rwanda to halt the HIV/AIDS epidemic and intervene sooner in the Rwandan genocide. When problems can be neatly packaged as African or third world problems, it is easy to ignore them or simply blame an incompetent government and sweep them under the rug. 

Second, demands that the U.S. cut off trade with Africa is premised on the idea that Africa is somehow a drag on the U.S. economy and by cutting it off, the U.S. will no longer be held back. This ignores the fact that the U.S.'s economic ties with Africa are mutually beneficial. Halting trade may be disastrous for Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, countries that are already struggling to mobilize the resources to deal with immense pressures on their healthcare infrastructure and social safety nets. Cutting off trade would also be damaging to the U.S. economy, which runs a trade deficit with 13 African countries, imports cars, machinery, steel and iron from 49 different African countries and exports agricultural surpluses and mineral fuel (oil) totaling $24 billion annually. This is likely to increase over time, as eight of the 20 fastest growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa in 2012. 

Finally, drastic actions taken against Africa now have enormous implications for future relations with key players on the continent. This week, the largest ever India-Africa summit to be held in December was cancelled with no provisional date set in its place because of fears of the Ebola outbreak. This is a significant shift away from India's renewed interest in recent years in providing loans and increasing trade to access Africa's vast supply of natural resources including oil, gas and coal.  Even if countries affected by Ebola are able to kill the outbreak while being quarantined by the rest of the world (which is extremely unlikely), the future of relations with countries that have seen their allies turn off relations when they are inconvenient is shaky at best. Alliances (especially economic ties) must be seen as consistent and trustworthy in order to forge cooperative agreements. If the U.S. and other countries want to capitalize on African countries' growth in the future, they must provide support in the face of disaster rather than taking their panicked citizens' voices and turning away.