The second area of concern, of course, is the current “Ebola Scare.” My personal memories of Ebola date back to the late 1970s/early 1980s while doing anthropological studies along the Zambian-Congo border. It is sad to note that much has remained the same over the intervening decades.
- Diseases that periodically pop up and kill small groups of villagers in the more isolated portions of the globe are largely ignored. In the case of Ebola, until recently, each outbreaks was simply one more example of ex africa semper aliquid novi, “From Africa always something new” – and that something new, all too often, is seen as posing a threat to the West.
- Grand public promises of aid far outpace the flow of actual resources to the affected area.
- Promises to look at root causes and to seek lasting solutions after the immediate emergency has dissipated are rarely kept.
- The world still relies on private corporations to develop and produce our pharmaceuticals. Thus, the high cost of research and development, the pursuit of profit and the rewarding of stockholders leave little room for discussions about moral worthiness.
Against this backdrop of continuity, two very important changes have indeed occurred in recent times:
- First, the concept of the “Daily News Cycle” has disappeared. The world is no longer content with the morning newspaper over coffee and the evening news on TV after dinner. The “24-hour News Cycle” now predominates. Print, television, and radio have been joined by online and app-based technologies. The explosion of entities and individuals whose earnings are tied to market shares increases exponentially each year. The absolute need to capture and hold audiences, and advertisers, places a high premium on being the first, the loudest, the flashiest, the most visually arresting, and the most shocking. The pace of news production far outpaces the production of knowledge itself, or even the distribution and absorption of simple facts. The production of news refuses to slow down for deliberation, contemplation or reflection. Ebola, the invisible killer from Africa, has become the perfect fodder for this foolishness.
- The second change, or so it appears to me, is the absolute and utter collapse of faith in national governments in so many regions of the world. This had led some Liberian citizens, for example, to claim that Ebola does not exist, and to publicly accuse their own government of manufacturing the crisis in order to increase the flow of foreign aid, which would ultimately be appropriated by the elite. It has led some citizens of Guinea to accuse their government of collaborating with foreign powers in a genocidal plot against rural Guineans. In the US, discussions about banning travel from West Africa have become political fodder for the upcoming election; statements used to strategically position candidates with or against whatever they envision Obama to represent. All bona fide experts in dealing with public health matters, and all who are currently on the front line speak out against such a move. Clearly, the “Ebola Scare” is a murky mix of misinformation, political opportunism, blatant racism, government incompetence, the continuation of post-colonial dependency and genuine fear, all amplified by technologies with the need to pump out content; whatever damage they do to the truth.
Yet, Ebola is real. Its impact is real. And, within the fragmented global cacophony, eruptions of reason regularly arise. Many of these moments of clarity are produced by ASA members. The Blog “Africa is a Country” has stimulated a series of insightful posts by members Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Thandika Mkandawire and a host of others (http://africasacountry.com/). The online journal Cultural Anthropology is hosting a series entitled “Ebola in Perspective,” currently with 15 posts that are deeply infused with some of the best insights that anthropology has to offer (http://www.culanth.org/fieldsights/585-ebola-in-perspective). Stories are emerging about Nigeria’s heroic efforts in which four hospital staff died after becoming infected in the struggle to physically prevent an infected patient from leaving the hospital, and then implementing “protocols” that prevented the inflection from reaching the general population; tracking down and monitoring 90 individuals who may have come in contact with the index patient. News stories are emerging of Cuba’s massive human and material support on the frontline, as well as stories of unnoticed local and regional efforts. These are stories deserving of wider distribution.
The fragmented audiences of the contemporary world can no longer be reached via a handful of communications outlets. Thus, we who genuinely care about this situation need to diversify our efforts, to make our presence felt in new corners of the digital world, to challenge the misinformed and shame the disingenuous, to post and repost, tweet and re-tweet the many messages that speak truth to power. Congratulations are due to the many African Studies Centers that have designed informative public programming and engaged with local and national media. Congratulations are due as well to the many individuals and organizations that have given generously of their time, talent and other resources. We need all speak out against the panic and the prejudice that saturates discussions about Ebola. The ASA Annual Meeting will provide a special plenary on Ebola, plus a live interactive broadcast on Ebola from our partners at the West African Research Center (WARC) in Dakar, as well as other formal and informal opportunities for us to inform ourselves on the issues and construct useful strategies.
Please join us in Indianapolis.