Ebola-denial a revolt against colonial mindset - expert

Dakar - It has been one of the more bizarre features of a deadly epidemic: a vocal minority in west African society denying that Ebola exists even as family and friends die around them.

The outbreak has cut a swathe through the region, killing more than 1 500 people since the start of the year, yet the work of medics and nurses has been disrupted by angry mobs claiming Ebola is an invention.

A leading social anthropologist who spent a month among communities in the epicentre claims that "Ebola-denial" is perhaps more complex than it first appears.

"When people say that Ebola does not exist, they are rebelling against something," Senegalese university professor Cheikh Ibrahima Niang told AFP.

"They are in situations where they were not consulted and feel that they are treated with a lot of paternalism."

Wild rumours

Doctors and nurses - often from global aid agencies - are not only fighting the disease, but also a deep mistrust in communities often in the thrall of wild rumours that the virus was invented by the West or is a hoax.

Seventeen Ebola patients in the Liberian capital Monrovia fled from a guarantine centre two weeks ago after it was attacked by club-wielding youths shouting "there's no Ebola" in the latest of a series of such incidents across the region.

"We need to ask what is making them say that," Niang told AFP in an interview at Dakar's Cheik Anta Diop University.

"People have the impression that they are not getting all the necessary information or they do not agree with the prevention measures and medical procedures being imposed on them."

Niang spent July in Sierra Leone's eastern districts of Kenema and Kailahun, on the front line of the fight against the outbreak, as part of a mission for the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The epidemic, which emerged in Guinea at the start of the year before spreading to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, is the worst Ebola outbreak since the haemorrhagic fever was first identified in 1976.

Colonial legacy

More than 3 000 people have been infected, with 1 552 deaths: 694 in Liberia; 430 in Guinea; 422 in Sierra Leone and six in Nigeria, according to the latest WHO figures.

Niang believes that "counterproductive" border closures were an example of the wrong approach, giving at-risk populations a false sense of security and propagating complacency.

"There is a very important African metaphor that says a forest fire which has spread to a town or community needs to be fought at its origins. Barricading myself at home and stockpiling water for when it arrives will not put it out," he said.

"How many people cross the border at night, by bush tracks and trails, because this border, a colonial legacy, is artificial?" he asked.

Niang said the strictly clinical approach to combating Ebola had provided "relatively limited" success because it failed to take into account local sensitivities.

"It only sees the disease and not the context. This is one of the reasons why the problem has been slow to have an adequate response," he told AFP.

Greater political will

Niang believes that talk of the African reluctance to accept modern clinical practices comes from a "reductive medical vision".

The problem is not that locals don't accept medicine can work, it's that they are mistrustful of an invading culture coming into their homeland telling them how they should behave.

Niang believes that western models of targeting individuals in education campaigns have been equally wrong-headed, when it is families who are primarily affected by the virus.

He said the response to the epidemic was being led by men and called for more women to be placed in decision-making positions.

"Ebola is transmitted by a virus, but the outbreak of the epidemic comes at a time when there is a social, political, cultural and historical context which is facilitating its spread," said Niang.

He called for "greater political will of our [west African] states, resources to be mobilised to send teams to provide clinical and sociological answers".

Fullmoon Up 2014/09/02 09:08:42 AM
it is much the same response as we would expect from mugabe, deny the truth and blame the west! and some say you cannot judge intelligent or logical response, really? by simply saying, or believing something does not exist, does not make it go away. whether by natural causes or by design!
Roelof van Vuuren 2014/09/02 09:13:32 AM
Pre-Renaissance! They are incapable of science, enlightenment and order!
Utopian Indigent 2014/09/02 09:20:33 AM
The deadly consequences of living in the past. If the English did this there would still be no cooperation with Germany, and they would hate Prince William who is a descendent of Danish invaders. But not all of it is the cost of denial, some of it is the deadly wages of sin. Africa urgently needs to wake up in general, we are selling our future to our past, which means the future will be lost.
Lindi Botha 2014/09/02 09:28:28 AM
They misspelled quarantine and spelled it "guarantine".
Had Enuf 2014/09/02 09:28:31 AM
If they deny its existence then stop sending aid and resources. Let's see how that works out for West Africa.
Arlene Classen 2014/09/02 09:44:59 AM
Why does the scientific community of the world not learn? Leave bush-dwellers alone. Let them dig their own graves. Pull down the isolation camps, doctors and nurses, and go home to your own poor communities. Fix things on your doorstep first.
Marcel De Graaf 2014/09/02 10:03:06 AM
You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink...
Deon Du Plessis 2014/09/02 10:12:41 AM
@ Jeffrey. Oh please, you should get rid of that big-@ss chip on your shoulder. This whole "white man evil" sob story is sooooo old. Get over yourself!!!
Christelle Hoffmann 2014/09/02 11:51:57 AM
Hopalong, unfortunately you teally dont know the history very well. go back to the school and ask for a full refund because they didnt teach the real history.
Gopolang Dioka 2014/09/02 12:08:54 PM
Call me racist, fool, idiot or whatever, but I will subscribe to white ideas and opinions.