Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Everything you know about Ebola is wrong

Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

July 31, 2017
5 min read

Viral outbreaks have become staples of horror movies. A mysterious new disease emerges, probably from the forests of Africa, then rapidly spreads across the globe, unleashing some zombie plague and triggering a social collapse.

This scenario is the nightmare of the privileged within globalised capitalism. The relative comfort and apparent stability of the west is produced by and dependent upon the constant flow across borders of capital, resources, commodities and labour. For the most part, these flows surge beneath the surface in the global north, as invisible, ignored and depended-upon as the flows along cables, wires and pipes. A simmering anxiety is evident in debates about migration or threatened flights of capital; yet even these conversations assume that these flows can and should be managed and mastered.

The potential horror of these unbounded, uncontrollable flows is made fully manifest, however, through the trope of the pandemic. The infection spreads through channels cut by capitalism, from wilds to cities, from peripheries to centres, places of poverty to concentrations of wealth. In this trope, black and brown bodies are figured as infectious agents, seen as at once perilously close to wild animals yet alarmingly capable of boarding aeroplanes.

In the trope of the pandemic, the imagined social impact is apocalyptic – an apocalypse focused, inevitably, on western cities, experienced through white bodies, and manifested through a rapid failure of the social order. The trope of the pandemic plays out not only in fiction, however, but more dangerously across the 24-hour news cycle in health scares, such as that raised by the 2014-15 west African Ebola epidemic.

A healthy corrective to this sensationalised nightmare of pandemic, with its racist and imperialist underpinnings, can be found in Paul Richards’ excellent and timely work, Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic. In this short volume, Richards provides a concise account of the west African Ebola epidemic, detailing how it spread and how it was stopped. Richards is an anthropologist who has spent decades working in Sierra Leone, including during the civil war, and the depth of his knowledge and familiarity with the region is evident here.

Western reports on the Ebola epidemic often pushed the narrative that the disease’s spread was being worsened by the ignorance and stubbornness of locals, who refused to cooperate with disease control efforts and persisted in dangerous nursing and traditional burial practices. In contrast, Richards shows that successfully combatting Ebola required a genuine collaboration between locals and experts, with an open exchange of information and understanding regarding not only the requirements of disease control but also the realities of daily life, particularly in areas of extreme poverty.

Epidemiologists were surprised by the rapid spread of Ebola through remote areas in part because they did not know about the highly effective network of off-road motorcycle taxis. Meanwhile, it was useless to recommend that Ebola patients be given their own cup when many village households only had access to one.

Funerals emerged as a particular point of contention during this epidemic. Practices such as washing the body became extremely dangerous, and funerals often resulted in the infection of attendees. People were horrified, however, by the Ebola burial teams, who wrapped bodies in plastic bags and threw them into mass graves from the backs of trucks. Locals repeatedly asked to be given training and equipment to allow them to develop new, safe burial practices, without sacrificing the important emotional and social functions of funerals.

While Richards notes these obstacles, he emphasises the remarkable speed with which new understandings were reached. As he writes, ‘It is striking how rapidly communities learned to think like epidemiologists, and epidemiologists to think like communities.’

Richards also traces the connections between the Ebola epidemic and the political histories of the region. Experiences of civil war, repression and corruption have not only severely disrupted civil infrastructure, they have also created deep and well-founded mistrust of authorities, which did result in early scepticism regarding the disease. Scientific and medical activities have a long history of connection to exploitative and coercive practices by colonial, missionary and corporate bodies.

Nevertheless, Richards stresses that experience soon reshaped people’s initial responses. Rather than the ignorant masses of media fears, Richards argues that the communities affected by Ebola demonstrated tremendous pragmatism, adaptability and social cohesion.

One of the cornerstones of democratic, radical politics is the belief that ordinary people can be trusted: to learn, to take social responsibility, to look after each other. People are not solely driven by greed and fear; profit and coercion are not necessary motivators. Perhaps one of the most profound messages of Richards’ Ebola is the detailed, humane demonstration of the extent to which this is true, even in the most frightening of circumstances.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced