The latest outbreak of Ebola virus erupted across West Africa sometime this spring. The symptoms are horrific: fever, diarrhea, vomiting, hemorrhaging inside and outside of the body. There is no known cure. About 60% of those who contract the virus die. The disease is estimated to have killed nearly 1,000 people since March, in its inexorable march across Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and now Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria. The hospitals and clinics of Sierra Leone and Liberia, rudimentary in the best of times, have been overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses there are themselves becoming infected and dying, leaving few medical personnel to care for the victims.
Yet it wasn’t until two American health workers in Liberia contracted the disease and were evacuated to the U.S. for treatment that the West began widespread reporting on the outbreak. It seems the virus was now news in this country because: 1) Americans had been affected; and 2) it had, in effect — according to the breathless headlines — arrived on our shores. (This, despite the two victims being transported in hazmat suits and quarantined in an Atlanta hospital.)
A few days later, coincidentally enough, the World Health Organization declared the epidemic an international public health emergency, demanding an extraordinary global response. This is only the third declaration of its kind since the body began issuing such alerts in 2007. Even so, Doctors Without Borders, the international medical organization, called for a “massive deployment” of specialists to the affected countries, saying that “lives are being lost because the response is too slow.”
(The evacuated U.S. health workers are also among the few victims to have received an experimental drug that apparently is effective—but that’s another discussion entirely.)
Why did it take so long for the world to take note? The outbreak is now in its sixth month; would the West have remained so passive if it were Belgians bleeding from the eyes or the contagion had spread from Paris to Rome? It’s doubtful. But by its very nature, Ebola probably wouldn’t find such a hospitable environment in the West. The virus is passed through contact with bodily fluids; modern sanitation facilities, good hygienic practices, well-stocked hospitals, an abundance of trained medical professionals — all would work to help contain an outbreak here.
Not so in West Africa. To be sure, in the nicest neighborhoods of the capitals of the affected countries, the wealthy live in majestic homes surrounded by security fences topped with shards of broken glass. Graceful palms line the streets; there are all manner of modern conveniences, powered by home generators for when the electricity fails. As it invariably does — often. Then there are the slums where the majority of the population live: horrifying, odoriferous hovels constructed from corrugated tin, wood, bits of cardboard, old newspapers. Raw sewage runs in rivulets and mountains of garbage putrefy under the tropical sun.
When my husband and I lived in Liberia, next door to us stood an abandoned home that used to be a Health Ministry office, a once-beautiful building with high ceilings, wide windows and imperious stone lions guarding the stairs to the front door. Squatters had appropriated it; at one point, 87 people inhabited the house. The property was a mess: the windows had no panes; the walls were crumbling; the plumbing had collapsed. People threw their refuse out the gaping windows, creating ziggurats of garbage that grew steadily until someone set them alight to make room for more.
Mornings when I went for a jog along the beach, I’d come upon people emerging like zombies from rotting shells of houses, silently making their way down to the sand to defecate in the tide. Some squatted in the streets, brushing their teeth and expectorating into the gutters; under such conditions, you couldn’t help but come in contact with bodily fluids. Such is the price of poverty in a place where decades of government corruption and graft failed to create basic sanitation facilities. And that was before civil war and unrest in the region further destroyed what little infrastructure existed.
The lack of medical facilities and professionals are equally appalling. Liberia, for instance, currently has a total of about 50 doctors to care for the country’s four million people. That means there are generally more doctors on staff in one urban U.S. hospital than in an entire nation. And doctors there lack even such basic supplies as gloves to protect them from coming in contact with the bodily fluids of infected patients. They struggle too with trying to thwart traditional practices, such as the washing of the dead by village elders, that exacerbate the spread of Ebola.
The West has always maintained a certain lack of feeling about Africa: too distant; too unimportant economically; too other. That callousness is perhaps best illustrated by a former foreign editor for one of the biggest newspapers in the U.S. A friend of mine covered the continent in the 1980s for the paper and was among the first Western reporters to encounter the famine in 1983-84 that ravaged Ethiopia, killing hundreds of thousands of people. He tried desperately to interest the foreign editor in the story. Her response? “People are always starving to death in Africa. Where’s the news in that?”
At a time when Western media organizations are closing their Africa bureaus or greatly reducing their presence on the continent because of budget constraints, this indifference only grows. Today there is a famine in Somalia that barely rates coverage. Wars are raging in South Sudan, Central African Republic, and the Congo — where several million people are estimated to have died. Add to that list the explosion of the Ebola virus across West Africa.
Where is the news in all that? Apparently only when the victims are from the West.