I am coming late to this, but I have been reading some things that I feel merit some response in this space.
On Friday, the World Health Organization finally declared an international public health emergency in response to the world’s most recent Ebola virus outbreak that started in Guinea and has spread, at an unprecedented rate, to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria .
With about a thousand deaths recorded thus far, the current outbreak is the most severe ever. As of today, the reported fatalities are as follows: Guinea: 300+ deaths, Sierra Leone: 298 deaths, Liberia: 294 deaths and Nigeria: 2 deaths. Things look dire right now but they look to get even worse before we see an end to this epidemic.
In between, I feel like there is a standard of conduct that we should all adhere to. For example, do isolate yourself if you have been in close contact with an ebola patient and you start to get a headache, do refrain from eating wild animals at this time, don’t try to personally care for sick relatives, do what you can to help the situation. Depending on where you are, giving money or directly educating people are both ways to help the situation.
What definitely doesn’t help, no matter your location, and in fact will hurt is the promotion of sensationalist discourse around the ebola virus.
To that point, I feel like we have all been subjected to some marginally disingenuous reporting from the NY times and other news outlets. If you don’t have time to click on the link, I am talking about the way some of the reports have dwelt on the point that people in Guinea, or otherwise, would rather go to witch doctors than seek out proper medical care.
Hmmmm. Yes certainly, that can be our focus. We can speak ad nauseum of the naiveté of villagers and the like who probably never had access to a hospital before this epidemic and have never been examined by a doctor. We could do that and fit it well into narrative tropes about Africans.
Alternatively, we could take a step back for a more holistic view of what Guineans, Sierra Leoneans, Liberians and to a smaller extent Nigerians are currently going through. If we make the inquiry about why those countries are failing at battling ebola (or any public health epidemic), I am afraid the answer will not rest on individual citizens who are in their villages trying to get on with their lives the best way they know how. The answer and solution would sound like something those countries can do to succeed in the face of ebola et autre. That is, it would expose the gaps and provide solutions to build and reinforce public healthcare systems.
Healthcare (especially in Guinea) has been broken for decades and citizens have a deep mistrust of the level of care given by doctors and oversight exercised by the government. I hate to generalize but doctors and nurses (the few that are there) routinely misdiagnose and mistreat patients for financial gain among other things. All Guineans have horror stories of doctors prescribing the wrong medication because it was more expensive in lieu of the cheaper option that could have saved a life. I have lost at least two cousins and an aunt that way.
In essence, going to a witch doctor and going to the hospital are both toss ups. Fifty Fifty, dood. In their book, Poor Economics, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee make a similar point about people in distress. When people (even in the west) feel there is little else they can do to improve their situation, hope becomes very essential. Hope can be manifested in many ways; in those communities, it is manifest through a witch doctor.
The privilege to report on other people’s lives comes with the responsibility to do so in a truthful, thoughtful and responsible way. Honor it. You cannot rely solely on local anecdotes to report on the failing efforts to eradicate ebola, do some more work, learn the context. Thanks.
*”Pray the Devil back to Hell” is the title of Leymah Gbowee’s bestseller where she talks about the Liberian women’s efforts to bring peace during the civil war.
Ebola first appeared in 1976 in 2 simultaneous outbreaks, in Nzara, Sudan, and in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter was in a village situated near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name.
- It is introduced into the human population through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals ( for e.g. monkeys, bats).
- Ebola then spreads in the community through human-to-human transmission, with infection resulting from direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people, and indirect contact with environments contaminated with such fluids.
- A chronology (and additional facts) of the Ebola virus can be found here but before the current outbreak, the last known cases were recorded in Uganda and the DRC in 2012.