Would an Anthropology of Ebola (help) find its ultimate cure?

By Bex Thompson (Staff Writer)

The Ebola River has meandered through the Democratic Republic of Congo for eons, yet only recently has its name burst beyond its banks to flood the world. When the Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976 in a village close to the River’s banks it received little global attention or funding[1] to find a treatment or cure. However, the recent epidemic raging in West Africa, specifically the countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, has the world at attention and media reports are becoming increasingly fearful of a global and potentially apocalyptic outbreak. This fear may be warranted considering the profound lack of understanding surrounding Ebola’s origins, ambiguities in the modes of its transmission, and little to no preventive or curative medicine. The fact that Ebola causes rapid death via haemorrhaging only compounds the sense of shifty horror that seems to surround it.

The media is awash with headlines that confirm the ‘terror of Ebola’, which is ‘exploding’ out of ‘Africa’ and ‘African immigrants’.  As panic over Ebola deepens, racial profiling increases. Comments on internet news discussion boards reiterate that countries should ‘should close their borders to Africans before they kill everyone’ or more precisely ‘KEEP THEM OUT OF THE COUNTRY!!!!’[2] Regions of Africa battling Ebola have become conflated with the continent at large, making Africa in its entirety, dangerous. This extends beyond geography, when African people themselves are stereotyped and anonymized in these these same broad stroke conflations. In the past months what strikes me as more terrifying is not my untimely and unlikely death from Ebola, but the continuous casting of ‘Africans’ as dark, dangerous and ultimately deadly. So I ask, since when did Ebola become part of the African DNA?

The media coverage has only exacerbated the racial divide. As artist André Carrilho aptly shows in his recent illustration, journalists are fixated upon reporting on the single, white individual in the sea of black patients[3]. While African victims are presented as nameless and indistinguishable, the media has closely monitored Europeans and Americans who have contracted the virus. This is reflected in the reporting of the epidemic and its current death toll, which is estimated at 4,922 out of 10,141 infected cases.  From these 10,141 cases, 18 have been treated outside of Africa[4], nevertheless it is these patients’ names and photographs that have been released for the world to weep and hope for.

But where are the names and photographs of the 10,123 other victims?

American and European hospitals, with their modern medicines like the limited experimental drug Zmapp and blood transfusions, are viewed as the saving grace available only for a select few of Ebola infected persons worldwide. As the uncle of the doctor and latest Ebola victim currently being treated in New York stated, ‘‘He’s getting the best care possible in New York. It’s not like he is still in Africa and I have no doubt he will pull through’[5]. With its limited resources by these wealthy nations’ hospitals' standards, Africa is therefore presented as place to die. This is only intensified by claims made by an American journalist who reported how the African response to Ebola was to chase ‘out the virus by shouting, running around with spears and beating on saucepans’[6].

In response to these narratives of the dangerous and dark threat from Africa, there has been overwhelming clamoring by the public of wealthy, non-African nations to close borders, and quarantine and isolate all new arrivals. A few American politicians have similarly called a ban on all flights from West Africa as further support of such extreme, xenophobic measures. In response, I argue that this is a shallow attempt to combat Ebloa: the only way to effectively tackle Ebola is at the source of the epidemic and importantly, diseases are entangled in a complex landscape between humans and the environment.


Anthropology, namely Medical Anthropology strives to study and understand this entanglement. A hallmark method of the discipline, participant observation may seem difficult to implement during epidemics but it is argued that without taking the time to listen to local interpretations of the disease under investigation, an epidemic will continue to rampage. Hewlett and Hewlett claimed that anthropologists have never participated in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Ebola control efforts, yet their novel ethnography was the first to question how local people in Uganda, Congo and Gabon interpreted Ebola and the subsequent rapid and multiple deaths[7]. Through understanding the complex set of locally adapted practices, anthropologists may have the ability to mediate the fears and resistance of local communities. Such techniques are as simple as renaming ‘isolation tents’ as ‘treatment centres’[8]. This was effective in upping treatment numbers after reports that individuals refused to go into ‘isolation tents’ for fear of an imminent and certain death. Ethnography in an epidemic allowed for the local meanings of the terminology used by outside groups to be brought to light, and for that terminology to better reflect the local Guinean environment it was being used in.

More complexities also arose during such work. For example, during funerals families gather to give a final kiss or touch to the corpse in order for the decreased spirit to leave the body. Touching the body a deceased Ebola victim would contaminate healthy, living family members. Anthropologists in the current West African epidemic suggested that international health teams should grieve with families and also developed secure burials in line with cultural expectations ad practices. This demonstration of solidarity during the funeral was said to gain community trust in the teams and ensure that populations can see and bestow objects onto the body before burial and gave credence to a discouragement of practices that could lead to transmission[9].

Faye, a medical anthropologist from the University in Dakar who works in the current West African epidemic aptly claimed, “our work consists of understanding the mechanisms of these behaviours and the reasons behind them…we need to respond appropriately and with tact, taking account of the sensitivity of the population but also of the pressing need to bring to an end to the suffering caused by the disease”[10]. In line with this, I argue that while a new strain of racial profiling in Europe and America develops, implementing measures such as quarantine, isolation and the shutting of borders will do little to protect the world from Ebola. Instead, anthropological perspectives will be invaluable to Ebola control efforts. Only through blending local knowledge with biomedical intervention at the source of the outbreak will Ebola be effectively controlled. Ebola does not exist in a vacuum; it lives in human bodies that share social environments. Shutting out our fellow humans will not stop Ebola - increased understanding, instead of fear, will be the strength in the fight against this epidemic.

[1] Barry S. Hewlett and Bonnie L.Hewlett. Ebola, Culture, and Politics: The Anthropology of an Emerging disease. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2014/10/01/why-hasnt-the-u-s-closed-its-airports-to-travelers-from-ebola-ravaged-countries/

[3] http://mic.com/articles/100618/one-powerful-illustration-shows-exactly-what-s-wrong-with-media-coverage-of-ebola

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/07/31/world/africa/ebola-virus-outbreak-qa.html?_r=0

[5] http://dailym.ai/1zBLqCZ

[6] Barry S. Hewlett and Bonnie L.Hewlett. Ebola, Culture, and Politics: The Anthropology of an Emerging disease. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.

[7] Barry S. Hewlett and Bonnie L.Hewlett. Ebola, Culture, and Politics: The Anthropology of an Emerging disease. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.

[8] http://www.scidev.net/global/cooperation/feature/anthropologists-medics-ebola-guinea.html

[9]  http://www.scidev.net/global/cooperation/feature/anthropologists-medics-ebola-guinea.html

[10] http://www.scidev.net/global/cooperation/feature/anthropologists-medics-ebola-guinea.html