I recently caught this article regarding the Ebola outbreak in Africa on Lon Strickler’s Phantoms and Monsters. This piece is sad on so many levels that I felt the need to address it.
Before I say anything else, however, I want to take a moment to encourage anyone who reads this blog post to do whatever you do to send positive healing energies to this part of the world. Visualization, prayer, magic, work with the dead or dying . . . whatever work you can do, in addition to whatever financial outlay you might make can have an effect in this terrible situation. I am not overly sentimental and I understand that there are forces of tearing down as well as forces of building up, but such a plague surely deserves our attention and compassion.
The sub text that I read in this article is that these people are poor, ignorant, superstitious villagers who need to be pulled from their unenlightened state by the science of the West. Now, I will be the first to say that the belief system in some parts of Africa can be hard to take. As in medieval Europe, it is all too easy for someone to point at another villager, cry witch and set off a series of events that can lead to the witch’s death. I do not for a moment condone this sort of behavior and I certainly want to see the West African people get all the medical assistance they need in order to break this plague.
However, I want you to place yourself in these villagers’ shoes for a few moments. Many, if not most, of these folks live at a subsistence level with minimal access to even the most basic health care and education. While we may not understand them, many of these villagers also have a very clear set of spiritual beliefs and have very likely felt the presence of the spirits in their lives. The much maligned ‘traditional medicine’ has been the only medicine many of them have ever known and, contrary to what we may believe, that medicine has sometimes worked for them.
In other words, these folks are people who are living in a world that most of us can not even begin to understand. When was the last time you had to slaughter an animal or hunt in order to eat? How many times have you had to find an herbal remedy to treat a raging fever? It is an entirely different world from the one that most of us live in and, before we criticize the ‘ignorant savages’ who will not allow doctors and medics into their villages, we have to look at things from their perspective.
The villagers have been living a normal life – getting by day to day, keeping food in their stomachs and, perhaps, if they are lucky putting a little aside for things they consider luxury items. One of them comes down sick with a fever, muscle aches and headache. This individual feels so weak he or she can hardly get to the toilet and their bowels are loose when they do manage it. The person refuses food and, within a week, despite the efforts of the village healer, that person dies. And, then, the people who had contact with the sick one become ill as well . . . some of them even worse, evincing bleeding, red eyes, difficulty breathing and more. Panic begins to spread in the village, the spirits do not seem to be able to conquer this awful disease and the rumor begins to spread that the village or, at least, those who are sick have been cursed.
In these people’s view, a curse is a very real thing (and, from a magical perspective, a curse is also very real, although it does not usually bring symptoms of a hemorrhagic fever). Suddenly, these outsiders appear, with their strange suits and their refusal to show their faces, and say that they know how to treat the illness. Even if the villagers allow this, the mortality rate for this awful disease is still anywhere from 50 to 90 percent. Word travels fast in a crisis, the telephone effect occurs as word spreads from one person to another and it is not long before those who are trying to help are suspected of actually causing the curse.
In these people’s world view, their belief is entirely justified and their banning of doctors from their village is logical to them. They are trying to protect themselves while faced with something new, completely different and terrifying. Like their ancestors before them, they feel that they have to deal with this plague by trial and error, finding ways to avoid it or cure it using the technology available to them since it is obvious to them that the strangers are not having any luck with this disease either! Once you contract this bleeding sickness, chances are high that you will die.
It seems to me that, rather than shaking our heads at the ignorance of these people, we need to meet them in their own mindset. Some of the Western treatments for Ebola do increase the patients likelihood for survival (things like fluid replacement and supplemental oxygen) but it is Western isolation procedures that will be most useful in stemming the tide of this viral outbreak. To get villagers to go along with these strange procedures, I think that we have to move past the ‘medical deity (MD)’ model to a model where procedures are explained to the people by someone they can identify with – a fellow villager or better yet a native healer who has been given some understanding of the disease and can explain it to others in terms they will accept. For example, if the villagers believe that Ebola is a curse, then they should understand that the suits and gloves and other isolation procedures are magical techniques for blocking off the curse and preventing it from spreading.
In essence, my feeling is that, to minimize the suffering of these people, we have to view the situation like we would being in a land where we did not speak the language. We either have to learn the language or, in the case of an emergency, we need a translator.
May the spirits who walk with these people bring forth those translators quickly and effectively so that this plague can be stemmed before it spreads further.