Via Al Jazeera English, a thoughtful opinion piece by Nanjala Nyabola: Fear and loathing on Ebola's front-line. Excerpt:
These people are not crazy. They're afraid. And not just of Ebola and death, but also of what it represents, likely conditioned by complex beliefs that lie outside the scope of clinical medicine. These unexpected behaviours prompt us to broaden the scope of what we consider contextually significant in responding to the Ebola outbreak, and especially the complex, extensive, and rather recent histories of the countries of the Mano River basin.
War that changed everything
Consider the history of Liberia. By September 9, 1990, when soldiers loyal to rebel leader Prince Johnson tortured and killed then-president Samuel Doe in the presidential palace in Liberia, the country already had centuries of quasi-racial, economic and social inequality and exploitation behind it.
Although wealthy on paper, the majority of the country's indigenous population was excluded from participating in its wealth. Doe, the first non-Americo-Liberian president in Liberia, himself seized power in a coup in 1980 on the pretext of redressing this situation.
However, he perpetuated the exploitation of ethnic identities and by the time of his murder, a civil war had been raging for about nine months, exacerbated by newfound wealth and inequality based on the prosperity of the country's diamond, timber, rubber, and shipping industries.
In fact, the war in Liberia turned out to be one of the most violent and internationalised internal conflicts, precipitating seismic shifts in political science theory to accommodate new forms of social and political participation. Conflict minerals, use of child soldiers, "new wars", resource curses - these concepts were expanded significantly to account for the excesses of the various belligerents engaged in the conflict.
At one point, all three major groups - Doe's, Johnson's, and Charles Taylor's - were heavily financed and staffed directly by Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Ivory Coast, and Libya, and indirectly through legally sourced and trafficked sales of resources to France, Belgium, and the US.
Fear of the unknown Despite this historical significance, the war in Liberia remains one of the most under-researched, and specifically the manipulation of spiritualism and mysticism by the various groups remains under-researched and ill-understood even though it was a distinct characteristic of the conflict.
Yet, this phenomenon may account for some of the resistance of individuals and communities to interventions on Ebola. Remember that the use of herbal medicines is a common resort in places where clinical medicine isn't well established.
So, if on May 4, Liberia's health minister is noting that the country only has 150 doctors for a population of 3.5 million, it is not irrational to project that the bulk of the country's population is seeking medical help outside the formal healthcare system. Investment in the country's healthcare system has also been sparse, and greatly compromised by under-funding and corruption.
For diseases common in a population, herbal medicines can and sometimes do work - the use of schkuhria pinnata as a treatment for malaria is recognised and encouraged in many traditional communities around the world. But Ebola is somewhat new to Liberia, and logically, untested herbal medicines cannot work for diseases with no long-established precedent or practice. Herbal medicine, like clinical medicine, is, after all, a process of trial and error, of accumulating knowledge over vast periods of time.
An herbalist who recognises their reliance on the inherent properties of plants may accept this limitation. One who believes that they derive their power principally from the spiritual plane will not, and the latter is probably part of the problem with the current outbreak: falsely advertising cures and returning still-infected persons home.
It is thus important to understand the role of spiritualism in Liberia. A significant number of the world's population believe that there are forces in this world that cannot be experienced through the senses. Conflict, which raises the entropy in the public sphere, often deepens this belief.
Philosopher Frantz Fanon notes in "The Wretched of the Earth", that in populations ravaged by political uncertainty and social change, reliance on mysticism often surges as people seek to rationalise forces that lie outside their ability to control.