Why do we only care about Americans with Ebola?

Published 04 August 2014  |  
(Photo: Samaritan's Purse)
Dr Kent Brantly, left, is back in the US undergoing treatment in an isolation unit

Many of the top news stories about the Ebola outbreak currently spreading through West Africa focus on the Americans who have been affected.

We've heard about Patrick Sawyer, the naturalised American citizen working for the Liberian government who died in Nigeria, and American aid workers Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, who were infected at the Samaritan's Purse clinic in Liberia.

That's three names out of about 1,200 people who have been infected in the worst outbreak on record which began in Guinea in February.

The only exception to this are the names of some of the top doctors in the region who have either been infected or died as a result of trying to combat the spread of the virus.

Other angles have looked at the possible impact on western nations and whether we're likely to see a rampant global spread of Ebola.

But by far the most fataltities have been in Africa – in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. So why have we heard proportionately little from Africa for Africa's sake?

Given that the news that there are people dying from an infection somewhere 'over there' has to compete with the news that Orlando Bloom punched Justin Bieber, it's easy to understand why everything has to be filtered through the lens of Western relevance.

It's thought that we relate better to stories that have more overlap with our own. We know, for instance, that Brantly was on a post-residency programme and has wanted to be a missionary since childhood. Writebol is described as a loving wife, 'salt-of-the-earth' type of woman.

Judging from the popularity of these stories, we want to know this information. We want to know what they are like and how their families are coping. But why? Would we feel the same about anyone from Guinea?

Of course, Brantly and Writebol have served sacrificially by treating patients with a deadly virus. And of course their families are worried. But so is every family watching their relatives suffer from the infection.

Ostensibly Brantly, who was flown back to Atlanta on Saturday in a specially fitted plane, will receive the same treatment in the US as he did in Liberia – namely, isolation.

But clearly the level of that isolation care will be substantially different, which is precisely why it's so unlikely that the disease would spread far if individual cases did arrive in Europe or the US.

Killing the Ebola virus is as simple as using soap and water, and isolation is an effective method of containing it. But sadly preventing its spread isn't as straightforward as sending crates of soap.

Gadiru Bassie, working with Tearfund partner Evangelical Fellowship Sierra Leone (EFSL) in Freetown, said that aid workers are having to fight, not only against a lack of sanitation education, but also against erroneous political messages.

"When the Ebola outbreak was announced in May, some leaders – especially politicians in eastern province Kailahun district – told their supporters that the information about the Ebola outbreak was false and that people should not believe it," said Bassie.

"Health and NGO workers who were delivering the health messages were chased out of the communities," he added.

Some relatives went into isolated clinics to remove patients, as happened in the first documented case in Freetown, although it is not known how widespread this problem is.

"The unprotected handling of the Ebola patients by relatives and herbalists actually contributed to the spread of the Ebola virus from the epicentre to the other places in Sierra Leone," said Bassie.

Soap and water alone won't fix the Ebola outbreak; neither is there a simple solution for our age-old bias towards the familiar – both require us to adopt a new perspective.

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