Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Ebola-related rant


©EC/ECHO/Jean-Louis Mosser

©EC/ECHO/Jean-Louis Mosser

Warning: I will be making use of my blog for a small rant today. Normal service will resume shortly.

Like many others, I am getting very cross about coverage of Ebola. The first target for my ire are the articles (I won’t link to any of them because I don’t want to drive traffic there) that I keep seeing popping up on facebook and twitter suggesting that Ebola is not real and is in fact a western conspiracy designed to justify roll out of a vaccine which will kill off Africans. This kind of article is of course ignorant – but it is also highly insulting and dangerous. It is insulting to the thousands of health-care workers who are, as you are reading this, putting their lives on the line to care for Ebola patients in abysmal conditions. Those who are working in the riskiest conditions are health workers from the region. But it is worth noting that hundreds of people from outside Africa – including many government workers – are also volunteering to help and to suggest that their governments are actually the ones plotting the outbreak is particularly insulting. But even worse is the potential danger of these articles. They risk influencing those who have funds which could be invested in the response – and they also risk influencing those in affected countries to not take up a vaccine if one were developed.

This type of conspiracy theory is of course nothing new – the belief that HIV is ‘not real’ and/or invented by the west to kill off Africans is widely held across the continent. I have worked with many well-educated African policy makers who have subscribed to that belief. And it is a belief which has killed hundreds of thousands of people. The most famous example is of course in Thabo Mbeki’s South Africa when an estimated 300,000 people died of AIDS due to his erroneous beliefs. But I am sure the number is much higher if you were to consider other policy makers and religious leaders who have propagated these types of rumours and advised against taking effective anti-retroviral treatments.

The second thing that is really upsetting me is the implicit racism of some western coverage of the outbreak. I find it deeply depressing that, if you were to take this media coverage as indicative of people in the US and Europe’s interest, you would conclude that they only take Ebola seriously when it starts to affect people in their own country. It’s as if we are incapable of acknowledging our shared humanity with the people of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Those are people just like us. People who have hopes and ambitions. People who love their children and get irritated by their mothers-in-law. People who crave happiness. People who are terrified of the prospect of dying an excruciating and undignified death. Why is the immense suffering of these people not enough to get our attention and sympathy?? How could we be so selfish as to get panicked by the incredibly unlikely prospect of the virus spreading in our countries when it already is spreading and causing misery to our fellow human beings???

I mean, if the media of America and Europe wanted to be evidence-informed about their selfishness, they would be spending their time worrying about things far more likely to kill us – cancer, obesity and even the flu. Or they could extend their empathy at least to their childrens’ generation and spend time worrying about global warming.

But even better, they could also ponder how it is possible that the best case scenario for the west’s response to the crisis is likely to be that thousands of people continue to die excruciating and undignified deaths but at least do so in ways less likely to infect others around them.

That is a pretty depressing prospect.


Edit: thanks to @davidsteven for pointing out that my original post was doing a diservice to the people of Europe and America by implying they were all uninterested in the plight of people in Africa. That is of course not true and many (most?) people are very concerned about what is happening. I have tried to edit above to clarify that it is the panic-stirring by the media that I am really moaning about.


4 thoughts on “Ebola-related rant

  1. Pingback: Killer Facts: Ebola | Jeff Bloem

  2. The media coverage is abhorrent and the level of ignorance in the community is alarming. The outbreak is a real wake-up call for how messed up our cultures are, as well as highlighting major problems with international disease prevention and control. I hope at least we learn some useful things from this tragedy.

  3. Thank you for the ‘rant’ Kirsty – much appreciated and needed. This is a very sad state of affairs. To add to your first complaint, I saw a video recently of an American activist going on American news claiming to have a patent that proves that the US government ‘made’ Ebola (which by the way has circulated the whatsapp feeds of Sierra Leoneans causing a huge distrust in the formal health sector). I shared it with my patent attorney sister who had this to say:
    ‘Patents do not give their owners the right to “experiment on people”. Patents give their owners a temporary exclusive right to produce and sell a drug.
    I have searched for the patent application and have a copy. The patent application has not yet granted and it is possible that it may never grant.
    The patent application covers a vaccination for Ebola. The vaccination is a weak and attenuated version of the virus, which cannot harm anyone. So the man in the video has manipulated the fact that this patent is for a version of the virus that will act as a vaccination to make his claims.’
    Very frustrating that such irresponsible journalism can be allowed to air, putting lives at risk. I hope the social mobilisation workers in the affected countries are able to dispel these ridiculous myths quickly!

  4. Your article reminded me of the issue about AIDS/HIV scepticism. I suspected at the time that some like Mbeki got hold of the wrong end of the stick about certain ideas current in the early days of the AIDS problem. Some health workers wanted to point out that the breakdown of the immune system as in full blown AIDS was similar to problems seen in people with chronic malnutrition. There were some who were putting forwards the idea that in the African context illnesses caused by malnutrition might be misdiagnosed as AIDS. Now with cheaper HIV testing the problem should not exist. I have also always suspected that Mbeki may have had a more concrete political motivation for his position on AIDS. Anti-AIDS drugs were at the time extremely expensive and in the context of the RSA health budget the impact on other health spending may have been a difficult issue he was avoiding.

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