Last Friday, I spoke to my mother at her home in Freetown, Sierra Leone, to discuss my forthcoming trip. In light of the outbreak of Ebola in the country, should I still come? She thought I should reschedule – the mood in the country was low and people were staying home. Best wait for a better time. What we didn’t discuss was the chance of me catching Ebola, because we both knew the chances were minuscule.
Our conversation may yet be entirely academic because British Airways, on which I am booked to fly, has cancelled all flights until the end of this month and possibly beyond. The World Health Organisation gave the company a very public slap, issuing a statement to say there was no need to suspend flights as the disease was not airborne, and anyone in the infectious stages of Ebola would be incapable of flying. “Hard to save lives if we & other health workers cannot get in,” the WHO tweeted.
Sadly, that didn’t stop other airlines following suit. Kenya Airways suspended flights to Freetown, and Korean Airlines suspended flights to Nairobi, even though Kenya is on the other side of the continent, 3,000 miles away. This week, a Brazilian delegation to a trade conference in Namibia cancelled its visit, citing fear of Ebola. “Do these people not have a map?” a spokesman for Namibia’s Chamber of Commerce asked. The Namibian capital, Windhoek, is closer to Rio de Janeiro than to Guinea, where the outbreak originated.
Western reporting of the Ebola outbreak has been consistently overblown. Early reports claimed the virus was passed on to humans through the consumption of fruit bats, an apparent delicacy of which I’d never heard. In a scientific paper I found a more convincing explanation: the bats hang in the rafters of buildings, dropping their contaminated feces and urine below. A friend in Freetown tells me of the greeting that has replaced the customary three kisses: people knock elbows and chant “Elbow, elbow-la!”.On the phone, my mother is pleased people are heeding government advice. This week, the New York Times reported Ebola survivors being shunned and treated as “untouchable” by neighbours. Much, in fact, as people in America refused to touch HIV-positive people a few decades back, only with better reason.
In the US, Donald Trump tweeted that American Ebola victims should not be brought home. Yet international health experts agree that the failure to contain the outbreak is due to the broken health systems in the affected countries, which are among the poorest in the world, two of which are still rebuilding following a decade of war. Simply put, this would not happen in Britain or the US.
In west Africa, those most at risk are the very poor, their carers and health workers. True, the disease has no cure, but reported death rates of 90% are wrong. The actual figure is 50%-55%. Agencies struggling to contain the outbreak took the international media to task for reporting an inflated figure, causing locals to view Ebola centres as no more than a place to die and therefore refuse to report symptoms.
The US has begun evacuating its citizens from the area. Meanwhile, another friend, who heads an NGO in Freetown and has no plans to evacuate her staff, describes the courage of the doctors and nurses working 20-hour shifts, despite the loss of nearly 100 colleagues.
Some years ago I met the Sierra Leonian expert in haemorrhagic fevers, Dr Aniru Conteh, who headed the country’s Lassa fever research unit. He had struggled on with his work for years despite a lack of proper equipment – reportedly at one point using a snorkel and mask while handling samples. He died after being accidentally contaminated by a patient.
His successor, Dr Sheik Umar Khan, spearheaded initial efforts to combat the Ebola outbreak. He too died in the line of duty, as did most members of his unit: researchers, nurses and even a driver. Their loss will have enduring consequences in the world’s fight against the disease, yet their life’s work has received less coverage than an idiotic remark by Trump. Read reports in the western media of Ebola hysteria and you may well ask yourself to whom the hysteria belongs. Not, apparently, to those with the most to lose.
Aminatta Forna was born in Glasgow and raised in Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom. She is the award-winning author of The Memory of Love, Ancestor Stones and The Devil that Danced on the Water.