A tall, dark-skinned man shudders with the discomfort of a deep fever. His brow furrows as he paws at his aching limbs with clenched fists. Alongside him is a topless boy, his stomach covered by an angry red rash. Nearby, another man is doubled over, vomiting blood. A vacant face in a bed beside stares on over the scene before him, unseeing with his bleeding eyes. People in white protective suits, gloves and masks huddle nearby with bowed heads. Set further away beside the whitewashed walls of the health centre is a person, wrapped loosely head to toe in a white sheet.
Thankfully, these images are merely a series of sketched cartoons. The large illustrated posters depicting the symptoms of Ebola which line the walls of buildings in West Africa are graphic, and rightly so. For people living there, Ebola is a terrifying reality, the threats of which must be understood by all.
Mention Ebola anywhere in Africa and fear flashes in people’s eyes. In a remote Tanzanian town, thousands of miles from the outbreak, one man shakes his head at the mention of the virus.
“You bleed through your eyes, and through your mouth, then through your skin. It’s a terrible thing,” he says, rubbing his hands down his face and shuddering with seemingly genuine fear. The belief within African communities that those who contract the virus will be quarantined and left to meet a gruesome end is causing those within the affected areas to flee in fear, driving the outbreak further. A successful solution will be one that combines an effective treatment with education.
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In Sierra Leone, governmental posters advise that ‘with good care, some patients will survive Ebola and re-enter their communities. Make them welcome and do not stigmatise them.’ The media in countries affected directly by the epidemic are reporting on more than just a far-off story; the way in which Ebola is portrayed to the public there can affect people’s attitudes and actions, and ultimately the eradication of and recovery from this outbreak.
The danger to the Western world is far less real than in West Africa, yet almost without exception it is the few Ebola victims from the Western world who are singled out, with names and faces put to them. The media attention is focussed on those few people who connect the otherwise far-off disease close to home. The cases in Africa are merely numbers alluding to a nasty underbelly of racism in some news outlets. News reports express concern over the spread of the disease to the West ahead of concern for the places the outbreak is currently rife.
Regrettably, the picture of African people painted in the media is one of ignorance. Many journalists have cited ‘cultural’ differences — including burial rituals, bushmeat consumption and reaction to quarantine — as reasons for the spreading of the virus and adds to a history of treating Africa as a dirty, diseased place.
The progression of the outbreak continues to concern health officials with citizens of 5 out of the 54 African countries in total (including Nigeria which has since been declared Ebola free) being infected. But it is the public perception of the disease that is having a continent-wide effect. The association of ‘Ebola’ with ‘Africa’ is proving detrimental across the continent, with people cancelling holidays, and safari companies reporting significant drops in bookings, even in countries further from the outbreak than some parts of Europe. For these countries with a high dependency on tourism, this could have serious economic and developmental impacts reaching far into the future.
Just as Africa as a continent has fallen foul of generalisations, people of African descent have been subjected to racism, xenophobia and abhorrent discrimination. In Berlin, 60 police and firefighters were called and a building locked down after a dark-skinned woman collapsed in a meeting. In Brussels, a man of African descent with a nosebleed in a shopping centre was cornered and the shop he was in sterilised. Unsurprisingly, having not visited West Africa, both these people then tested negative for Ebola. Ebola doesn’t choose its victims based on the colour of their skin; the media has a responsibility to educate and avoid such outrageous discrimination.
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The three main countries affected by the current outbreak — Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — are developing countries, all still recovering from recent lengthy periods of conflict and instability. They lack infrastructure and have weak health systems, leaving them ill equipped to handle the outbreaks. The bottom line is that in the West we’re well equipped to deal with the few cases that might appear, and have systems already in place to prevent spread of infectious diseases. Direct comparisons between spread of Ebola in Africa and potential spread in the West are therefore ridiculous, uninformative and frankly counterproductive.
There is a clear disparity between reality and the views represented in the mainstream media. Fear grabs people’s attention, and it is this attention which ultimately increases viewers and readership. For example, the story of Kent Brantly was documented meticulously by the media: the American doctor and missionary contracted Ebola in Liberia and was flown back to the US for treatment. Press helicopters followed his short journey from the airport to the hospital reporting on the apparent severity of his condition, and repeatedly posing the terrifying possibility that he could infect others, potentially sparking an American outbreak. His ambulance journey to the hospital culminated, somewhat anticlimactically, in him walking in through the back entrance. Three weeks later he was discharged, Ebola free.
It does seem that media hype over Ebola has been a much more serious issue in the US than here in the UK. American news anchors have said, “spiralling out of control” and “all hell is about to break loose” when talking about the outbreak – statements that clearly exaggerate the truth. A survey by the Harvard School of Public Health showed that 39% of adults worry about a large outbreak of Ebola in the US, with 26% concerned they will fall ill in the next year.
Despite a variety of reliable sources ensuring that an outbreak in the West is highly unlikely, people continue to fear for their own safety. Why? Because the mainstream media have cultivated this perception. A story without a potential threat to us would not gain traction. The stories show selfishness and a lack of compassion for people far removed from our own lives. It makes one beg the question: where’s the humanity?
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Despite news of this outbreak dominating recent headlines, Ebola isn’t new. Research into prevention and cures has been ongoing; merely accelerated by the scale of the latest outbreak. Since its discovery in 1976 there have been many small-scale outbreaks of Ebola in African countries, each ranging from one to a few hundred cases. But none compare to the current outbreak, whose death toll now stands above 5000, with nearly 3000 in Liberia alone.
We are bombarded by the media with grizzly facts and inconceivable statistics, so many seemingly indicating a serious threat to the West. So where does 5000 deaths stand in comparison to other deadly diseases? According to the World Health Organisation, since the beginning of this year’s Ebola outbreak in March, HIV/AIDS has claimed the lives of 620,000 people in Africa, with Malaria killing in the region of 320,000. But unlike Ebola, in the Western media these diseases are old news posing little threat to our own everyday lives. The scale of this Ebola outbreak is unprecedented, and it is the uncertainty of the virus’s potential to become a global pandemic and to affect us directly that has caught the media’s attention.
Of course, mortality rates of diseases tend to increase during unexpected outbreaks, and also often fluctuate as an outbreak progresses. Estimates of Ebola’s mortality rate range from 50% to as high as 90% at the peak of certain outbreaks. The rates reported are mostly based on figures specific to West Africa, where health facilities and knowledge are significantly less developed than in the Western world. Still, countless reports claiming a definitive 90% mortality have been released, leading people to believe the risk of Ebola to us in the UK and other Western countries is higher than it is. Selective journalism is rife in recent media coverage, and this can significantly impact on our perception of the true dangers posed.
Most, if not all of what we understand about the current Ebola epidemic comes from the mainstream media. Of course, news outlets have a vested interest to publicise what will appeal to their target audience, and the resulting selective journalism has inevitably affected perceptions.
The role of social media in this is not one to be underestimated. It allows people to talk about and share exclusively the stories they find interesting, regardless of their motivation or the reliability of the source. On sites where anyone and everyone have free roam, it is easy for non-reliable information to be shared to perpetuity and to become ‘fact’.
Stories which evoke strong feelings in people are often popular; the media is very good at singling out and stirring hatred for particular people. Where Ebola is concerned, it is those allegedly putting others at risk who are most likely to feel the media’s wrath. More often than not, these have been the people who have been most selfless and determined to help: the American nurse, Kaci Hickox, despised for leaving her house for a bike ride after returning home from treating Ebola patients in West-Africa, despite testing negative for Ebola; the West-African health workers working with Ebola patients for whom abusive taunts in the street have become the norm. It seems people are always keen to point fingers and place blame, and the media is simply feeding this eagerness.
The same Ebola-related stories crop up time and time again in Western media. A frequent topic is the speed at which the illness can progress. Early symptoms are often nothing extraordinary, and are by no means categorically Ebola. For example, fever, headaches, joint pain and muscle weakness can be easily associated with common colds and flu. By its nature as a haemorrhagic virus, Ebola can cause both internal and external bleeding in its later stages. In most cases however, the bleeding you can actually see is minimal, even after death. There is still a tendency to only discuss and report the most extreme symptoms, fuelled by our macabre interests.
The media has also latched onto the idea that people can walk around in public undetected as a carrier of Ebola, supposedly passing it on to whoever they come into ‘contact’ with. The implication is often that simply travelling in the same train carriage or even walking down the same street as someone is enough for infection to occur.
What often goes unmentioned is that although people can carry the virus for 2-21 days before potential manifestation, they are not contagious until symptoms show. Even then, spread of Ebola is limited to contact with infected body fluids, so simply walking past someone would unlikely be sufficient for transmission. Professor Peter Piot, the scientist who co-discovered the Ebola virus has expressed publicly how he would happily sit next to an infected person on the train, highlighting the ability of the media to over-exaggerate the risks.
Still, even the chief scientist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US suggested that Ebola has mutated to become airborne – a claim refuted by multiple other scientists, but which has still managed to cause panic, especially in the US. The broader issue here is more complex than simply scientists versus journalists.
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With so much media coverage focussing on the supposed threat to the Western World, key issues surrounding the epidemic for West-African people are often disregarded. This has led many to believe that eradication of the outbreak in Africa will end the suffering and problems, which is clearly not the case. Far more time and money will need to be spent, even after the epidemic has ended. For example, since many schools closed to prevent Ebola spread, a large proportion of a generation have ended their education prematurely, leaving a gap in the educated workforce, key to countries’ development. Disruption of vaccination programmes and replacement of health clinics by specialist Ebola treatment centres is also expected to increase mortality of other health issues, such as Malaria and malnutrition, as well as increasing mortality during pregnancy as mothers are forced to give birth unassisted at home.
Although exaggerations and poor use of facts and statistics have encouraged fear and stigmatisation, some good has come of the media coverage in the West, with many successful charity campaigns to raise money to help those affected, and to prevent further spread.
The most recent high profile charity and awareness campaign has been launched by Sir Bob Geldof, with the Band Aid 30 single looking set to be a strong contender for the Christmas number one spot, despite being met by strong criticism. This will bring Ebola still further into the media spotlight, though whether the lyrics “where a kiss of love can kill you and there’s death in every tear” will do more harm than good to the Western public’s perception of Ebola remains to be seen.