The “Dark Continent” Revisited: Global Distancing and the Ebola Crisis
By Ryan Triche
For the past eight months, the Zaire strain of the Ebola virus has ravaged Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Increasingly, this epidemic has also led to hysteria and paranoia in other West African states, as well as globally. Recently, isolated cases have even been confirmed in the United States and Spain. With each new case in the developed world, increased pressure is put on respective governments to do something about the outbreak. However, this attention is often focused on defensive mechanisms of these developed countries themselves. In the United States, there have been four confirmed Ebola cases up to this point, with one death.
Recently, the news media has been dominated by speculation and exaggeration which falls just short of fear mongering. The American public itself has responded to this coverage with brash decisions of its own. There has been an increasing trend of public schools denying admission to African students. One school district in Maple Shade, New Jersey recently kept two Rwandan students from showing up for class due to parents’ fears that they may be carrying the virus. In case you are keeping track, Rwanda is about 3,000 miles away from the affected region of Africa. There have also been no confirmed Ebola cases in that nation. It is not surprising that this bizarre behavior has been met with a response in Rwanda, in which the government has recently contemplated restricting travel from states with confirmed Ebola cases, including the US and Spain.
Ebola is a serious global epidemic. If it is not stopped, it will destroy countless lives, wreck economies, and ultimately reverse what development progress has been made in Africa in the past decades. The fears Americans have to the disease are rational—after all, this current outbreak has a mortality rate hovering at around 50% according to the World Health Organization. However, while rational, this fear is misplaced. Citizens of Western nations should not fear for themselves, but rather on behalf of the region most affected by this outbreak. Sierra Leone and Liberia are about a decade removed from one of the most violent periods of civil war in African history. Guinea has only just recently begun shedding its despotic image. These nations make up one of the poorest sub-groups of states in the world today. Only recently has democratic reform and economic growth begun to take hold in these nations. Still, this progress is not near enough to equip these nations with the tools needed to deal with such an outbreak.
The biggest obstacle to an effective Ebola response is not the lethality of the disease, access to resources, or some conceived cultural ideology. Rather, the great roadblock is the perception that developed nations hold towards these African states. I speak on behalf of my own nationality when I say that the American public is extremely distanced from the history, politics, and culture of Africa. For us, Africa continues to be a continent of war, wildlife, and the mysterious—akin to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This idea may be best illustrated by the widely repeated assumption that Ebola originated from contaminated bush meat. However, there has been no official direct linkage of tainted bushmeat and human transmission of Ebola in this case. What is known is that patient zero was reported to be a two-year-old girl from Guinea. It is not known how she contracted the sickness, although fruit bats have been shown to be natural hosts of the Ebola virus. Given that the diet of many rural villagers in West Africa is made up of bushmeat, it is easy to link the consumption of bushmeat to the outbreak. Still, other sources note that eating fruit dropped by a bat or simply touching a bat is enough to contract the virus.
For Westerners, the consumption of bushmeat is both unpalatable, as well as irrational. However, this food source is the lifeblood of many rural inhabitants of West Africa. Furthermore, only fruit bats themselves have ever been shown to be natural hosts of the Ebola virus, and primates can be secondary hosts.
Perhaps more perplexing is that one study noted that in Ghana, over 128,000 fruit bats are sold as bushmeat each year, yet there has never been an Ebola outbreak in that nation. The growing outcry against bushmeat has stereotyped all of these sources of food as one category, when only certain animals can spread the sickness. Westerners perceive bushmeat as a distant, backwards idea, however, there are thousands of Americans today who frequently enjoy bushmeat’s American counterparts in the form of squirrel, rabbit, venison, raccoon and the like. Diseases stemming from the consumption and physical contact with these meats can include trichinosis, hantavirus, and the near 100% fatal rhabdovirus (rabies). Let us not forget the avian and swine flu epidemics, which were brought about by domesticated birds and pigs, respectively. To ban the consumption of game meats in the US, or placing restrictions on domesticated livestock would be political suicide and irrelevant
The recent Newsweek cover exemplifies the disconnect between developed states and Africa. The depiction of a chimpanzee on the cover reifies the notion of the “Dark Continent’ while simultaneously focusing Ebola fears as a threat to US interests rather than Africa. Chimpanzees represent only a small part of bushmeat consumption. One study found that less than 5% of all bushmeat comes from vulnerable populations, which includes apes. Furthermore, apes themselves are not primary hosts of Ebola. The cover would have been more accurate depicting a fruit bat in this case.
The developed nations of the world have continued to attempt to distance themselves from the epidemic in Africa. Recently, there has been pressure to completely ban flights from affected states. Again, this is indicative of another attempt to distance oneself from the situation in Africa. Politicians and scholars alike have continuously instituted barriers defining the Ebola outbreak in Africa as a unique condition caused by African cultural, social, and political practices. To them, the Ebola outbreak in Africa is looked at through the lens of what these states have done wrong in their response, ignoring the initial or root causes. Though cliché, the colonial history of the continent, again, seems to be a major contributing factor. It is easy for Americans and Europeans to distance themselves from these outbreak countries in the Dark Continent. The distance created is a social response of these citizens which alleviates fears. In turn, this separate identity reduces the sense of obligation to do something about the outbreak. The global response has only picked up recently, as the virus has crept into these host countries. Again, the resources in this case are still focused on defending the source countries, rather than the eradication of the outbreak within those countries.
As infection rates and death tolls continue to rise in West Africa, with Mali being the newest country to see documented cases, the global community continues to respond with protectionist policies rather than aggressive actions. The root of the epidemic lies within these African states; this outbreak will last long into the future if the spread is not curbed in this specific region. Even if developed countries successfully contain the virus to within this region, the economic and security consequences will be severe. Countless will die and millions will be faced with a state lacking governance and finances. The region will at best regress into the conditions during the decades-long civil wars. At worst, the Ebola outbreak will affect far more states in Africa and continue to destabilize the global, interconnected economy.
Social dissociation between developed nations and the affected African states continues to plague the global response to the pandemic. Keeping those from affected regions out of our global community does nothing more than increase this dissociation; it fails to seek solutions in the affected region itself. The time is ripe to bridge the gap between West Africa and the wider global community. In order to defeat this outbreak, it is not a protectionist policy, but the common bonds of humanity which must drive a response. Nations must provide resources and manpower in not only fighting the spread of Ebola, but eradicating the disease from the epicenter.
Ryan Triche is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Diplomacy. He is pursuing an MA in Diplomacy & International Relations with an interest in African Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Sustainability.
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