Our attitude to Ebola victims' plight is what's really scary
Media coverage of the Ebola outbreak reflects our prejudices about the poor of Africa
Published 10/08/2014 | 02:30
'Flesh-eating ebola virus could reach Irish shores' shrieked the headline of an Irish tabloid recently. Inside, an expert in tropical disease described how this awful illness afflicts its victims. The language seemed lifted from the pages of a low-budget horror film. He spoke of people being "dissolved" from the inside.
Ebola hysteria has become a western pandemic. There are few stories guaranteed to capture public attention like the threat of deadly microbes carried from foreign countries.
British Airways has suspended flights to and from countries affected by the outbreak. Meanwhile, the Daily Mirror whipped-up ebola "terror" when a passenger travelling into Gatwick from Gambia died on arrival into the country. The panic was premature. Tests revealed the woman died of causes unrelated to the virus.
No matter, this sort of thing sells newspapers. August is a slow news month, so it is the perfect time for inflated horror narratives about the threat of going global.
Protected behind our first-world health systems, we continue to fret about contagion from a disease that health experts insist poses almost no risk to us.
Ebola, unlike other global health issues such as TB, swine flu or SARS, is not very readily spread. It is only transmitted through direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected person. The scientist who discovered the virus has declared that he would "not be worried about sitting next to someone with the ebola virus on the Tube."
The scaremongering over the potential threat of ebola blinds us to the suffering of those who are genuinely affected - the communities in West Africa where the disease has taken hold.
Hysteria impedes action. When a hurricane or tsunami hits an area of the world remote from our own shores, we can respond with uncomplicated charity from the safe distance of our living rooms.
But with a contagious disease, our response is different, and more complicated. The needy are seen as potentially dangerous. The greater the perceived risk to us, the stronger the prejudice against the afflicted.
That's why some of the western media's coverage of the ebola outbreak has been so irresponsible. It has focussed on an improbable side issue rather than the actual crisis.
It explains, too, why the pampered billionaire Donald Trump last week took to Twitter to pitch his views on the decision to repatriate two gravely-ill American aid workers who contracted the disease on the frontline in West Africa. "Ebola patient will be brought to the US in a few days - Now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent. KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!"
It is ugly, this kind of overt, self-serving protectionism. And as a response to ebola, it is wholly irrational, but it reflects wider fears about moral or physical contamination by the poor.
Ebola is mainly a disease of poverty. It thrives in those countries that lack the necessary resources to implement effective containment strategies.
It is an epidemic that has taken hold in states with health systems that are recovering from war, and where rates of literacy and education are low. This means that health messages about reducing transmission are not easily spread. According to the charity Save The Children, two of the worst affected countries, Sierra Leone and Liberia, have an average of one doctor per 33,000 people.
This week the WHO declared the ebola outbreak an international emergency. It chose to use strong language designed to capture the attention of the public. The outbreak in West Africa presents a grave and devastating problem there.
Various charities have launched appeals. The Irish government has pledged an additional €120,000 to help fight the spread of the disease.
I will leave the last word to a young American doctor named William Fischer II, a father of two, who is treating ebola sufferers in Guinea.
"With ebola you can't have a good death," he says. "You are isolated from your friends, your family, your home. You are cared for by people whose primary focus is on stopping transmission from infected to susceptible and from patient to provider...
"These people often die without the comfort of a human hand, without seeing someone's full face or even just knowing that a loved one is nearby."