Ebola has had catastrophic effects in West Africa. The latest World Health Organisation (WHO) figures show that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has killed more than 4,500 people so far across Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the three worst-hit countries.
This news is devastating, and the stories are heart-breaking. The need for emergency aid is crucial to minimise future damage as much as possible.
But what this crisis really reinforced to me is the argument in favour of the welfare state.
Let’s take healthcare. Inevitably a private healthcare system acts as a deterrent to seeking medical attention, particularly so for those with low or no cash income. It seems inevitable therefore that the first Ebola victims would have been reluctant or unable to seek medical assistance when they began suffering symptoms. This meant that instead of the infected being diagnosed and quarantined, the virus was able to spread. In addition it increased the delay before medical professionals could begin working on a treatment and cure.
There are other ways that a welfare state would minimise the effects of Ebola. The victims of Ebola are, of course, not only the deceased. Their family and friends also suffer immeasurable, life-changing damage. Unreported world’s documentary on the effects of Ebola in Sierra Leone featured a typical victim. She was a mother, Kadiatu Jusu, who had contracted the virus from her deceased father-in-law for whom she acted as carer during his last days. She was lucky enough to have been picked up by one of the Emergency Aid teams who were working in the area, using only 4 vehicles to monitor a population of half a million people. Although most victims have passed away, some have managed to fight the virus off if they are able to remain hydrated and get adequate rest. Kadiatu was one of these exceptions. She managed to recover from the virus and return to her 4 children days later. Tragically her husband was not so fortunate. He was admitted to the same clinic the day after his wife and he died there.
In this story, Kadiatu’s children were unlucky to lose their father, but they were lucky to keep a parent. Countless children in West Africa have been orphaned by Ebola. It is bad enough to lose your parents without having to worry, as a child, of how you are going to survive.
With no social services, the future of orphaned children is down to luck. Their survival depends on whether they have an extended family around them who are able to take them on. Uncles and Aunties are often too burdened with the task of keeping their own children alive. Even for Kadiatu who did survive, if her deceased husband Falalh was the family’s breadwinner, there will be no state support to see them through this time of hardship.
Is it right that these matters are left to luck? My view is categorically no. Stories like Kadiatu’s reinforce to me the value of systems such as the NHS in this country. It is pointless supporting human rights if we don’t have the practical means to implement them; the welfare state in the UK was created in 1949 for this very purpose. The government at that time quite rightly recognised that without services such as the NHS, welfare benefits, legal aid and asylum, human rights are rendered meaningless. At a time when welfare services are being slashed in the UK and there are threats of further cuts, it is worth pausing for a moment to remind ourselves of this. Human rights are vital because they guarantee us all basic minimum standards of treatment. They are also essential because they enable us to hold our governments to account when those standards are not met. A welfare state are the means by which our rights are put into practice.
Not only does the Ebola crisis demand urgent funding to minimise the damage of this disease. It also highlights the importance of long term investment in structured welfare services all over the world. My message is that here in the UK we should be protecting the services that we have instead of destroying them.