You have probably heard of Ebola, you may well be aware of its devastating effects on the human body and the current level of the supposed threat to the UK. You are less likely to be aware however, that the horrors of Ebola had been ravaging West Africa for months before there was any palpable reaction in the West. Ebola is unique in that unlike distant air strikes and civil wars, it has the capacity to infiltrate the West directly and as a result, it enjoys a privileged position in news coverage. The death toll in affected areas of Africa is currently placed at around 4,900, a fact which is largely overlooked by reporters who tend to focus on the plight of individual Westerners affected by the disease. The message here is clearly that the needs of Western patients are being placed above those of the thousands of Africans struggling to cope with the crisis. The response to the Ebola outbreak has revealed a worrying lack of empathy on the part of the West, more preoccupied with the repercussions for its own citizens, than aiding the stricken population of Western Africa.
A recent report suggests that the disease can be contained within four months, presumably supposed to reassure both Western leaders and the public alike, but overlooks the fact that this largely involves consigning a large portion of West Africa to a pretty brutal fate. It appears that in times of panic, the West is happy to abandon its professed egalitarian morals and revert back to colonial habits. This attitude was reflected in the treatment of African American Ebola victim Eric Duncan, who was vilified for endangering the health of Americans by daring to seek treatment in his own country. It is difficult to imagine the media having the same unsympathetic reaction if the victim had been a white, all-American poster citizen. Duncan was portrayed as little more than a contagion who had to be dealt with simply to assuage the fears of Americans and his treatment is just symptomatic of this prevailing complex of self-preservation within the West.
Ebola is seen as a ‘foreign’ disease. However, the sooner the West recognises that it can no longer afford to maintain a clinical distance from the epidemic the sooner the problem can be addressed. The mounting threat against the West means that governments are slowly starting to take notice, but it is shocking that only a direct affront to the safety of Western people can galvanise us into action.
More tragically, it has taken the devastating effects of Ebola for the world to acknowledge the appalling level of sanitation in Western Africa. Ebola, it seems, is just the tip of the iceberg and its outbreak has revealed the extreme shortcomings within the poorest healthcare systems. Perhaps more uncomfortably however, it has revealed a Western bias based on contented ignorance and a willingness to write off entire nations, simply because they do not fit with our own ideas about who deserves to be saved.