Ebolaphobia: A Tragedy of Culture, Poverty and Speculations

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In any situation where difficulties exceed reasonable solutions, unpredictability will certainly set in. This describes the current Ebola crisis in West Africa. No one took it very seriously when it was first heard of in Guinea. After all, Ebola has been around somewhere along the eastern belt of Sub-Saharan Africa since the middle 1970s. So, hearing about it did not raise an alarm or cause panic until we started to watch our people, who continue to die in the tenths, hundredths and subsequently turning West Point and Dolo’s Town in Liberia, etc, into quarantined centers.

After American health missionaries working in Liberia, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, got infected, than it became serious. A third US citizen — Patrick Sawyer — who was a Liberian-American citizen, died in Nigeria. It was only then that it attracted international news. CNN, BBC, Fox, New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters—every media in the world reported it. The reportage of the indicated media drew America’s attention to the plights of its citizens. America’s attention initiated a relief—one that was saturated with nationalism and bravery; a move-for-love; a step that once demonstrates the true meaning of ‘American exceptionalism. The media reported it and also speculated on the Ebola crisis and the magnitude at which the Ebola virus has spread. These speculations generated fear, leading to a global pandemonium.

How can we fight and defeat this virulent disease if we have fear? Fear and positive thought do not coexist because a submission to fear plunges the mind into an impulsive chaos. Such condition bruises the mind leaving us with extremely limited options of survival. Furthermore, whether we face our fear not to contract the Ebola virus or not, the virus is on the rampage, killing almost all of those that it infects. It has neither spared the extremely poor, the innocents, and ignorant nor has it spared the middle class, rich, and the elites.

This is happening not because Ebola cannot be defeated or completely eradicated from the world; it is because our fear is making us to concede that Ebola is an ‘indomitable virus.’ It is at such point the global community took a stance to isolate Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Considering the prior state of the Liberian economy, this stance will do more harm than good.

As a post-war country with scared production machinery, Liberia survives on an import economy with most of its basic staples, including rice, cassava, palm oil, etc coming from western countries, Asia, and bordering countries. Due to the current Ebola crisis; specifically, the fear of the disease spreading elsewhere (like how the disease was transported to Nigeria by a Liberian), major airliners flying into Liberia, have terminated their services. Such stance has also created shortage of job supply in an already employment-starving economy. The government’s temporary relief of non-essential employees coupled with a cash-out for no work—all will have indelible economic consequences thereafter. This is something we could have avoided if only our government had acted spontaneously (upon hearing of the virus in neighboring Guinea). The current containment strategy of the disease is also another quicksand approach our government did not radically structure.

Considering the danger of this virus, one would expect the government to carry out immediate testing of people in quarantined communities/neighborhood. This would help to quickly identify infected persons and then separate them from the healthy ones. But fear has its own compulsion that can make anyone to behave in a certain abnormally unprecedented manner. Our fear for Ebola is escalating. It is at a hyper proportion, which I referred to as ‘Ebolaphobia.’ This phobia is uncommon in our part of Africa as we have never experienced a virulent outbreak of such magnitude. What is even worse is the channel of transmission.

Current scientific literatures on the EVD suggest that there are five (5) species of the Ebola virus with three (3) from Africa. Bundibugyo Ebola virus (BDBV), Zaire Ebola virus (EBOV), and Sudan Ebola virus (SUDV)[ii] are found in Africa, while Reston Ebola virus (RESTV) and Tai Forest Ebola virus (TAFV) are in the Philippines and China.

The African Ebola viruses are the most deadly in the Ebola species according to the World Health Organization (WHO). These viruses are transmitted through closed contact with blood, fluids, and secretions of an infected person or animal. Other sources state that these viruses are transmitted through the handling or consumption of chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit-bats, monkeys, antelopes, porcupines—almost any ill animals found in the rainforest. It is stated that the trend of the African Ebola transmission shows that fruits-bats and ‘Bush Meats’ are the reservoir of the disease. This has raised serious concerns because Africans live on ‘Bush Meats.’ It is a part of our culture. The attempt to change such culture will be difficult. In fact too much attempts at changing such culture may exacerbate the situation.

Economic Impacts:

In urban areas of the infected countries, culture does not adequately suffice. But its imprints are visible everywhere, almost inevitable to renounce. Indeed, culture is man and man is society. Thus, convincing Liberians or inhabitants of the infected countries to stop consuming ‘Bush Meat,’ must not be a day marathon. It is often such hit-or-miss approach to change that often creates problems. After all, a change (be it good or bad) does not often have a full effect on a mere silver platter.

 History has shown that it is often those who make a change to work that often bear the blunt of those who effect the change.  With respect to Liberia, change has been a major problem from the very outset of our existence. This is not because Liberians hate change; rather it is because change has been a profit of the elites at the expense of the poor. Under such circumstance, there has always been an issue of trust between the governors and the governed. As such, pronouncement of the government as it relates to the consumption of ‘Bush Meat, ‘created more doubts. Changing such doubts will obviously take some time, even though the virus is spreading and killing hundreds of people. This is affecting our country on many fronts: socioeconomically, culturally, and politically. But like my granny often says: “A country is like a multi-modal boulevard” so as its people. In other words, the uniqueness of any country is based on pluralistic opinions and ideas. Even though at times such opinions or ideas can be risky to a drowning society; it often serves as a conscience of the society for which democratic principles are formulated.

It is on such basis adequate and carefully researched information on the specific species of forest animals that host the Ebola virus need to be identified. With such identification, it will become easier for the public to be educated on the chain of transmission: from animals to humans. But as of now, there is a spilled of bulky pieces of information regarding transmission of the virus, from animals to human beings as the indicated animals (see p.6) form the traditional [major] sources of protein in African meals. Consequently, it has been difficult for governments in the affected countries to convince the public against ‘Bush Meat’ consumption.

What has even worsened such campaign is that the sales of ‘Bush Meat’ constitute a sizable segment of microbusinesses in the three affected countries. These countries have adequate sum of ‘Bush Meat,’ and is affordable. As a major source of income, a sizeable proportion of rural households in the affected countries also depend on ‘Bush Meat’ for income. Thus, stopping people from selling or consuming it has a serious economic implication. Governments of the affected countries, considering their current state of affairs, do not have the capital base to subsidize for such product. Culture aside, ‘Bush Meat’ has a natural flavor and attractable taste that differentiates it from meat on western dinner tables. On the other hand, most of the meats on western dinner tables are raised artificially with a high degree of precaution for public health.  The contrast between the two, actually, lies in the hands of adaptation and affordability.

 For the locals in Liberia, for example, the concern is not about adaptation; it is about affordability. As a post-war country, the poverty magnitude of Liberia is one of the highest in the world (64% of which about 1.3 million live in extreme poverty according to WFP[iii]). Thus, people depend on ‘Bush Meat’ for their daily survival. So if ‘Bush Meat’ is a major transmitter of Ebola, an ultimate containment strategy has to be measured in dollars and cents. Such measurement should not only be based on provisions of assorted medical supplies; but also on the cost spent on substitutes. Such strategy will eventually revolutionize local consumption pattern entirely so much that in the long run it will become profitable to tourism and wildlife preservation. Such rationalizing is good for the future economic prospect of our country. But achieving it is like walking the blind on the moon.

Yet each day new cases of the disease are reported with families, relatives, and loved ones being abandoned and isolated. However, the feeling of mistrust is still prominent, making the public curious for more information. With such curiosity, people have taken unto different pool of sources, including the internet and social media for extra information. They want to know why they should not consume ‘Bush Meat.’ This has compounded the confusion because most of the information often gathered says many different things, contradicting one another. Creating more doubts and confusion, have made public’s rejection of the existence of Ebola inevitable. Consequently, it has been difficult to control the spread of the disease. In poor and culturally engrained countries like Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, the situation is even worse.

Role of the Media and Food Chain Theory:

The magnitude of illiteracy coupled with poverty has made people to treat any information that tend to discount ‘Bush Meat’ consumption with hysterical blindness. This happens not because of ignorance, but because the suggestion to avoid consuming ‘Bust Meats’ will worsen their poverty condition and also affect their culture. And this concern has surfaced in a lot of interviews with locals in Liberia. I had a similar concern, too, because of the way in which the media has speculated on how the disease can be contracted. When news of the virus first broke out in March (2014), it was speculated that the virus was susceptible to heat.

 With Liberia having one of the highest rain falls in the Sub-region, anyone would consider that the virus will rapidly spread since in fact it is already the Rainy Season and cold. It being true, the spread of the virus has led to a quarantine of a couple of communities in the affected countries. However, it still remained to be seen if the spread of the disease will fit in the food chain theory. This theory hypothesizes that because fruits-bats are possible carriers of the Ebola virus, animals eating fruits from the ground will likely be carriers of the disease vis-à-vis humans that also eat those animals. With such hypothesis, one would suppose that Ebola will be on the increase during the fruits season. Unfortunately, most of the crops that are grown in Liberia are often ripen during the Dry Season. The three countries that are currently affected share similar agrarian culture wherein harvest is due in the Dry Season. Thus one would suppose then that Ebola will be on the rampage since it is during such season we have a lot of crops products, most especially, ones that are attractable to fruit-bats. So if the food chain theory is true then it means two things will happen: (1) That Ebola is not susceptible to heat as was initially stated by the world health community; and/or (2) That a redo of the food chain analysis is needed given how our agrarian season rolls out.

Cultural Impacts:

Ebola is a dangerous virus, requiring a substantiated process analysis than the polarized peculations often heard of in the news media. Too many people are dying and for a virus as such, it will serve well for the human world if unbiased research is done on its causes. This will not only allay fear, but rather it will unite global efforts to fight against the disease. This will put an end to the global discrimination and stigmatization of Liberians, Guineans, and Sierra Leone. Until then, there remains a pigeonhole in the theory that consuming 'Bush Meat’ is one of the lead causes of contracting Ebola. With such hole, we are left with limited options; thus, defeating our collective purpose in the fight against the virus. This is an overwhelming challenge to not only Africa, but rather the entire human world as the virus is also rapidly spreading through hand-shakes. This is happening daily in spite of our adequate knowledge in dealing with natural and artificial disasters. Such a virulent disease as it has and continues to kill and spread to other parts of the world should be dealt with decisively.

We can only do so if fear does not surpass our reasoning. Such reasoning is formed base on the perception of our thought. As Ernest Homes said: “Our thought is creative, not because we will it so, but because it already is so. We cannot change this nor escape from its effects in our lives.” Our thought generates our feeling, be it fear, anguish, or tolerance. Thus, it determines our perception of things or situation. If our thought drives us into perceiving impossibility, no matter the size or effect of the situation, we will not arrive at a possible solution. The opposite is also true. As our thought bears our greatest fear, it also bears our greatest solutions; but only if we bury our fears and commit ourselves to consistent tries out. In the event we failed, we will become spineless, ripping off the nerve of self-determination. Our culture is fundamental to such determination. But the fear of Ebola is going to take away many things from us, including hands-shake, hugging, and the freedom of assembly.

 Much do I know about western culture, but in Africa, hands-shake is a manner through which we greet one another whenever we meet. Through hands-shake we communicate with one another in a closeable contact and divulge pertinent secrets, trade gossips, and share private information. Like a magnet, it attracts us into columns, circles, or rows; exchanging views on certain mutual interest. This mode of communication often creates a forum, bringing like-minds or people together with certain social bonds, particularly women. As an important segment of our social fabric, women in Africa, provide vital social services in group, during which time, they discuss issues affecting their communities, their kids, husbands, and trade gossips.  If Ebola succeeds, all these vital parts of our culture will extinct. So it is important to form a universal common front in the fight against Ebola. Or else it will deprive us of significant moral values, which we have long enjoyed. Freedom of assembly, (which is a fundamental human right) and other basic rights, including attending Churches, Mosques, political rallies, and local markets, will be extinct as well.

Such imposition will leave us with no peace. Always fearing for our lives, we will tent to subject ourselves to new ways of doing things: hands waving will replace hands-shake; hugging and traditional burial will replace cremation. Other cultural values, including, communal eating, communal creek bathing, and proximity group living—even though such cultural practices bring Africans together—will be all gone due to our fear for Ebola. Africans, especially, Liberians often live in a very close proximity so much that one can easily walk down to the next neighbor’s house to check to see how one’s neighbor is faring. These ways of life have had a profound effect on how Africans live together into one neighborhood, coordinate daily activities, oversee for one another, raise their kids, and protect their neighborhoods from external invasion. The benefits in living into such neighborhoods include:

  1. Attending community meeting

 If not all, but in most African societies, pertinent issues are discussed during community’s meetings. Often taking place in the center square of the community, where most palava huts are built, some of these meetings are urgently called by elders, chiefs, or community leaders. In an effort to discuss germane issues, the elders, chiefs or community leaders often send the town-crier to assemble other community members. In an emergency situation like a woman in birth-pain or when someone seriously falls sick, the hut bell is often rung to bring all men together. Toting a person in the emergency in a hammock, a group of men under the directive of the elders, chiefs, or community leaders will transport such person to the next town, where a help to rescue him/her is available.

  1. Raising and watching over the kids

 In most of Africa, this is considered a communal responsibility. Even though a lot have changed since the advent of western civilization; the practice of ‘see your neighbor’s kids as your own,’ is still a large and an important part of daily lives in most parts of Africa. As a communal responsibility, an African kid has many parents; ones that will care for him/her and at the same time will levy punishment whenever he/she did wrong or broke community’s rules. Such power is often exercised without an attitude of ‘let’s wait for his/her daddy or mommy to come.’ Upon committing a crime, or if a kid needs help, the oldest person present takes immediate responsibility.

  1. Encourage walkability.

Often because most homes in African settlements are built in closed proximity to one another (10 to 100 feet apart), it is often very easy for people to walk around. While this kind of community development easily brings people together, it also can pose a serious threat to lives during a disease outbreak like Ebola, cholera, and concentrated landslide. The landslide of Liberia’s No-Way Town Camp in Grand Cape Mount County, which claimed the lives of at least 200 peasant miners, in 1982, is a classic example. Notwithstanding, Africans always live in compact neighborhoods; and attend to one another’s affairs in a communal style like. This strengthens their social bond. It also creates oneness and often promotes peace among neighbors as what affects one neighbor is often attended to by the entire community. This follows how the dead is also treated. Up until the outbreak, the dead in Liberia have always been treated as an external part of the living. Such culture demands that the dead be treated with all the respects and honors due it, even though rituals performed during funeral services or a family bereavement vary on ethnic and religious lines.

In an African Christian culture, for example, the dead are often taken to funeral parlors for embalmment. This also depends on the tradition and affluence of the bereaved family. After then, the dead are usually taking to church, where funeral are carried out.  In other ethnicities, where modern style of embalmment is forbidden, the dead are often kept for about approximately seven to fourteen (7-14) days before being buried. This follows festivity and consolation of the bereaved family. But as cremation takes over traditional burial, the respect for our dead will also be a culture of the past. All these have been unbearable for our people and society, creating more fear.

Conclusion

The future of our country will depend on the decision we take against the spread of Ebola now. Like Frank Fanon said: “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.” Whether we are on a mission to succumb to fear or face fear to determine our own destiny, the outbreak of a virulent disease like Ebola will always occur. As it is observed, the situation has become a tragedy, which needs to be faced with bravery and overcome. But this can only be achieved if only we rid the world of fear, discrimination, and stigmatization.

Author:  Daniel Henry Smith; Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Policy Development, 33 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, Rutgers University NJ80901;Email: [email protected]

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